Tag Archives: Literary critique

The Role of the Cross-Dressing Male in Literature For Children.


The role of the cross-dressing male in literature for children serves to either reinforce societal gender norms or criticise them.  In order for the genre of cross-dressing to exist, however, the implied reader must already live in a society where dress plays a significant part in gender recognition and is generally practised as a social norm. Transsexual activist Nancy Nangeroni quoted that ‘It is not gender which causes problems; rather it is the imposition of gender on an individual by another.’[1]  Due to the socialisation of gender in Western societies, the cross-dressing male in literature for children is treated as the ‘other’. By discussing David Walliams’s novel The Boy in the Dress in comparison to Terence Blacker’s Boy2Girl, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I will identify the key issues surrounding the cross-dressing male in literature for children such as masculine reinforcement, sexuality, humour, and gender performance.

Written in 2008, Walliams offers an original critique of the male child cross-dresser in his novel The Boy in the Dress by addressing the way that clothing can create ‘otherness’. The opening statement of the novel is ambiguous, ‘Dennis was different.’[2] This statement not only poses the question of what or who is Dennis different from but also puts Dennis into the category of ‘other’. The narrator proceeds by telling the reader that ‘When [Dennis] looked in the mirror he saw an ordinary twelve-year-old boy,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.11). This implies that Dennis is not ‘different’ because of his appearance but rather because ‘he felt different- his thoughts were full of colour and poetry, though his life could be very boring’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.11). In this quotation, the italicised ‘felt’ in addition to his thoughts of colour and poetry not only demonstrate Dennis’s aesthetic view of the world but also an unconventional representation of the traditional masculine expression. Social theorist Victor J. Seidler suggests that ‘expressing emotions allows men to connect to an aspect of their subjectivity that traditional forms of masculinity have denied them.’ [3] Walliams is demonstrating that Dennis is aware that he deviates from the stereotypical Westernised idea of masculinity and therefore, feels different.  

Masculinity in The Boy in the Dress, suppresses the protagonist’s subjective self. Walliams demonstrates this by exploring masculine reinforcement within the child’s family. When Dennis’s mother leaves home, his father makes a rule of ‘No crying. And worst of all- no hugging, (The Boy in the Dress, p.16). For Dennis, his father’s lack of emotion is a result of depression, (The boy in the Dress, p15). Fischer suggests that

men hardly disclose their personal feelings, and tend to conceal the expression of emotions like fear, sadness, shame, and guilt. This can be understood as a strategy to boost conventional masculinity.[4]

By repressing his feelings, Dennis’s father reinforces his masculinity to the detriment of his sons. The repercussions of his behaviour are installed in Dennis’s brother who tells that protagonist that, ‘Only girls cry,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.17). Walliams demonstrates the effects that masculine reinforcement has on Dennis’s freedom of choice. When the protagonist is encouraged to try on Lisa’s dress, ‘he imagines for a moment what he would look like wearing it, but then told himself to stop being silly, (The Boy in the Dress, p.83). Identifying his discomfort, Lisa reassures him by saying she ‘love[s] putting on pretty dresses. I bet some boys would like it too. It’s no big deal,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.83). This contemporary reaction to cross-dressing is a result of the ‘differences [that] have been found in the perceptions of men and women towards transgender behaviours and people. In general, women are more tolerant.’ [5]  Dennis however, is torn between what he desires and how he has been taught to behave, ‘Dennis’s heart was beating really fast- he wanted to say “yes” but he couldn’t,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.83-84). Walliams criticises the Western construction of masculinity by showing Dennis’s oppression due to the masculine reinforcement he receives at home.

Unlike Walliams’s criticism of masculinity, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, published in 1908 promotes masculinity in order to reinforce Western gender norms. The character of Toad is represented as a carefree independent and wealthy animal with a disregard for societal rules. Following his imprisonment for joyriding, Toad’s female prison guard suggests that he dresses as a washerwoman to escape, explaining that ‘You’re very alike in many respects – particularly about the figure,’ [6] The character’s genderless shape allows him the ability to disguise himself. Dress for Toad is one of the ways that he can outwardly expose his masculinity in addition to gender performance and reputation.   It is for this reason that he is delighted when the original washerwoman suggests she should be tied and up and gagged before he escapes as she wants to keep her employment, ‘It would enable him to leave the prison in some style, and his reputation for being a desperate and dangerous fellow untarnished, (The Wind in the Willows, p.80).  The word desperate in conjunction with dangerous reasserts Toads masculinity as he is proving not only that his cross-dressing is a necessary deviance but one that enhances his power. Moreover, whilst the cross-dressing incident is presented as humorous, ‘Toad’s behaviour simply reinforces the normative gender binary rather than engaging with the subversive function of the carnivalesque.’[7]  For Toad, cross-dressing is a way for him to misbehave and divert attention from his true masculine self and as a result, gender binary is reinforced.

Gender performance is a key trope in male cross-dressing literature and highlights preconceived assumptions of gender roles. In Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in the United Kingdom in 1884, the protagonist is encouraged to wear women’s clothing in order to obtain information. Huckleberry’s friend Jim suggests that Huckleberry ‘put on some of them old things and dress up like a girl?’[8] In this instance, the act of cross-dressing is a fun experience and supplemented by an illustration by E. W. Kemble. This shows Jim kneeling down behind Huckleberry and laughing, whilst Huckleberry looks over his shoulder grinning and posing in a feminine manner. Flannigan suggests that

male cross-dressing is used for comedic purposes. The male cross-dresser, adored in feminine apparel worn in such an inexpert manner that his true sex remains no secret is a well-established comedic strategy,’ (Flannigan, p.135).

Flannigan’s suggestion demonstrates the reaction that the cross-dressing male has on its audience but fails to address the problematic response. In order for the act of cross-dressing to be deemed as comedic, the implied reader must already assume that the male character is acting incorrectly according to his perceived gender role. Walliams identifies this problem in The Boy in the Dress, by raising the issue of female inequality and the difficulty of femininity. Lisa suggests to Dennis that it’s ‘Not easy being a girl is it?’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.124). Furthermore, cross-dressing Dennis discovers the difficulty of being a girl:

Remember to cross your legs when you are wearing a dress, and most importantly, Don’t catch the boys’ eyes as you may be more attractive than you thought! (The Boy in the Dress, p.138).

In the above quotation, Walliams explores some of the rules of femininity. Not only is he discussing the female etiquette of ‘cross[ing] your legs’ but also the ways in which girls are sexualised by boys. The exclamation at the close of the quote illustrates male dominance, as it is the female who must divert her eyes from the male. Moreover, when Dennis’s father asks his son if he enjoys wearing a dress, Dennis replies, ‘Well, yes, Dad. It’s just…fun,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.167). The pause before ‘fun’ suggests that the protagonist is searching for the correct word that will console his father. Walliams is, however, criticising the way in which cross-dressing in literature for children is perceived as humorous. For Dennis, cross-dressing allows him the happiness that he normally suppresses whilst in his conventional male role, ‘He felt so happy he wanted to dance,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.100). This then raises the question ‘why are girls allowed to wear dresses and boys aren’t? It doesn’t make sense,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.175).  Dennis can see how illogical the typical Westernised view of cross-dressing is.

Sexual orientation is often explored in literature for children when a cross-dressing male is a main character.  In Terence Blacker’s Boy2Girl, written in 2004, Sam Lopez, is persuaded to cross-dress as part of an initiation into the Shed gang. The gang decide that Sam should go to his new school wearing girl’s clothes for five days. The novel is written with first person multiple narrators with the exclusion of the protagonist. This immediately demonstrates Sam’s lack of individuality. His first reaction demonstrates a common reaction to male cross-dressing, “You want me to be some kind of fruit?”[9]  Fruit or fruitcake is a common slang word that refers to a homosexual. [10] This association derives from the Victorian fin de siècle when ‘widespread contemporary fear[s] that perversion and deviation [from gender norms were] agents of degeneration.’[11]

This notion is also identified by Walliams in The Boy in the Dress when Dennis is caught by his Head Teacher wearing the orange sequined dress in school. The Head Master expels the boy and tells him ‘I am not having a degenerate like you in my school’, (The Boy in the Dress, p.163). Cross-dressing is often thought of as sexually motivated.  ‘Male cross-dressing is perceived as inherently sexual in nature (either in a fetishistic sense or in a homosexual context),’ (Flannigan, p.49). Sam’s reaction to cross-dressing in Boy2Girl demonstrates that the remnants of Victorian fear still remain. Similarly, in The Boy in the Dress, Dennis’s brother suggests that boys who read girls magazines are ‘Woofters!’(The Boy in the Dress, p.56), which is another popular term to describe the homosexual man. Whilst cross-dressing is identified as deviant behaviour in Walliams’s novel, Harrison suggests that cross-dressing can be referred to as:

“Gender Deviance” [which] simply refers to an individual who falls outside of our ordinary everyday understanding of male/masculine and female/feminine.’[12]

This critique raises the question of how the male child cross-dresser can be legitimately deemed as deviant when he is still in the early learning stages of his life and may not be fully aware of the Western gender ideology.

Walliams addresses gender ideology in childhood as problematic. In The Boy in the Dress, Dennis becomes bored due to his confinement within a socially constructed gender role. The word boring is mentioned eleven times throughout the novel and cross-dressing allows him to ‘feel like he [doesn’t] have to be boring Dennis living his boring life anymore’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.107).  This quotation illustrates the stifling effect that conformity has over the protagonist. Cross-dressing gives him a feeling of liberty. Walliams demonstrates this freedom through a change in narrative voice, from the third person to first, ‘I can be whoever I want to be,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.107).  The ‘I’, allows the character independent thought, whilst the repetition of ‘be’ gives him freedom of choice and finally ‘whoever’ is gender neutral.  The action of cross-dressing gives Dennis insight into life without gender conformity and he tells ‘Lisa I want to thank you for opening my eyes’, (The Boy in the Dress, p.207). Walliams is teaching the reader that gender should not be defined by what one wears.

The idea of gender neutrality is found in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the author demonstrates Huckleberry’s non-conformity due to his preference of wearing no clothes and his inability to accept and conform to civilisation:

We was always naked, day and night,[…] the new clothes Buck’s folks made for me was too good to be comfortable, and besides I didn’t go much on clothes, nohow, (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Para.3 of Chapter 19).

In the above quotation, Twain demonstrates Huckleberry’s relaxed nature and how he is comfortable in himself without the stifling effects of clothing. In addition, the author points out that adults are a child’s source of clothing, therefore limiting their independence. Huckleberry’s nakedness makes him gender neutral as opposed to conforming to socially constructed masculinity.

Cross-dressing in literature for children is often used to either reinforce societal gender norms or criticise them. Walliams, however, demonstrates that cross-dressing simply means a person who does not conform to Western dress codes. Dennis identifies this in his Sikh friend because he is ‘the only one who [wears] a patka,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.63). Dennis asks, ‘Do you feel different Darvesh?’(The boy in the Dress, p.63). The emphasis on the italicised ‘you’ alters the tone of the question suggesting that Dennis is aware of segregation due social conformity of dress. Darvesh’s reply allows Walliams to highlight how otherness is socially constructed; ‘When mum took me to India at Christmas to visit Grandma I didn’t at all. All the Sikh boys are wearing them,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.63). Walliams is demonstrating how alienating clothing can be for children, not only in gender but also within a cultural context.

Walliams, at the end of The Boy in the Dress, addresses exclusion or ‘othering’ due to societal control over children’s dress. In order to include Dennis in the football match after his exclusion from school, the full football team dress in women’s clothing. Suddenly ‘There was a huge cheer from the crowd’, (The Boy in the Dress, p.192). Walliams normalises the act of cross-dressing to demonstrate that exclusion due to gender or cultural dress is unnecessary. The final message in the novel serves to convince the reader that clothes are irrelevant to gender;  Dennis notices a red jacket coming towards him ‘And then the red jacket turned into a man,’(The Boy in the Dress, p.196).This defies the contemporary Western ideology of gender binary through dress.

I found that many of the authors wanted to demonstrate the effects of socially constructed gender. In The Boy in the Dress, this meant that the protagonist felt alienated through his family’s masculine reinforcement. Both Walliams’s novel and Blacker’s Boy2Girl, highlight the discrimination towards the cross-dressing male, which illustrates an out of date notion of homosexuality being linked to dress. Twain aimed to deconstruct the gender binary by presenting a character that was not affected by gendered clothing, whilst Grahame used the act of cross-dressing to reinforce gender binaries. Humour was a trope in all of the novels which was a result of inadequate gender performance, however, this highlighted that gender is socially constructed and therefore, unnatural. Not only did Walliams attempt to deconstruct the notion of the gender binary and demonstrate how emotions are similarly gendered, he also encouraged his reader to believe that clothing is irrelevant to gender. The originality of Walliam’s novel arises from his exploration of feelings surrounding gender and gendered dress and how these restrict individual freedom and result in segregation.



Adams James Eli and Millar Andrew H, Sexualities in Victorian Britain (U.S.A: Indiana University Press, 1996)

Blacker, Terence, Boy2Girl (Oxford: Macmillan Children’s Books, 2004)

Bolich, G.G, PhD. Today’s Transgender Realities: Crossdressing in Context (North Carolina: Psyche’s Press, 2007)

Fischer, Agneta, Gender and Emotion: Social Psychological Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)

Flanagan, Victoria, Into the Closet: Cross Dressing and the Gendered Body in Children’s Literature and Film (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2011)

Grahame, Kenneth, The Wind in the Willows (London: HarperCollins Publisher, 1908)

Harrison, Kelby, Sexual Deceit: The Ethics of Passing (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2013)

Nangeroni, Nancy, in Into the Closet: Cross Dressing and the Gendered Body in Children’s Literature and Film, ed. by Victoria Flanagan (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2011)

Sedler, Victor J. in The New Politics of Masculinity: Men Power and Resistance ed. Fidelma Ashe (Oxon: Routledge, 2007)

Steen, Edwin B. and Price, James. H, Human Sex and Sexuality (London: Constable and Company, 1988)

Twain, Mark, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York: Charles L. Webster and Company)

Walliams, David, The Boy in the Dress (London: Harper Collins, 2008)

[1] Nancy Nangeroni, in Into the Closet: Cross Dressing and the Gendered Body in Children’s Literature and Film , ed. by Victoria Flanagan (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2011), p.258.
[2] Davis Walliams, The Boy in the Dress (London: Harper Collins, 2008), p.11.
[3] Victor J. Sedler in The New Politics of Masculinity: Men Power and Resistance ed. Fidelma Ashe (Oxon: Routledge, 2007), p.111.
[4] Agneta Fischer, Gender and Emotion: Social Psychological Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p.173.
[5] G.G. Bolich, Ph.D. Today’s Transgender Realities: Crossdressing in Context (North Carolina: Psyche’s Press, 2007), p.271.
[6] Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (London: HarperCollins Publisher, 1908), p.79-80.
[7] Victoria Flanagan, Into the Closet: Cross Dressing and the Gendered Body in Children’s Literature and Film (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2011), p.143.
[8] Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York: Charles L. Webster and Company), para. 9 of Chapter 10.
[9] Terence Blacker Boy2Girl (Oxford: Macmillan Children’s Books, 2004), p.44.
[10] Edwin B. Steen and James H.Price, Human Sex and Sexuality (London: Costable and Company, 1988), p.297.
[11] James Eli Adams and Andrew H. Millar, Sexualities in Victorian Britain (U.S.A: Indiana University Press, 1996), p.97.
[12] Kelby Harrison, Sexual Deceit: The Ethics of Passing (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2013), p.9.



Book Review – Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma by Kerry Hudson


‘Graffiti and scorch marks, echoes of small fires, decorated doorsteps. Golden Special Brew cans and crushed vodka bottles, bright as diamonds, collected in gutters. Front gardens were filled with mouldy paddling pools and, occasionally, a rust burnished shell of a car. I had never seen anything so beautiful, so many colours, before in grey Aberdeen.’

Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma


This is a novel with nothing held back. While the title is light hearted and the cover art bright and cheerful, both are deceiving. The cover shows a silhouette of a young girl holding a giant red balloon against the backdrop of a Scottish suburban town. It is important to address the significance of this image. Readers may recall a similar painting by Banksy, named Girl With Balloon which was originally painted on a wall in London. Beside the painting was engraved “There Is Always Hope”. While Banksy’s painting shows the girl releasing the balloon, possibly representing lost hope or lost innocence,  Hudson’s cover shows the girl being lifted by the balloon.  Considering this when addressing the text, it is clear that Hudson wished to demonstrate that one can only hold on to hope by not letting go. Critics have described this book as containing bittersweet humour and Hudson cleverly intrudes in the second chapter by saying that this is in fact a ‘humorous cautionary tale’.   As soon as you begin reading, expect to get dirt under your nails. The author launches right into the location of the novel using regional Scottish dialect and local Aberdonian vernacular.  The story begins with the birth of out protagonist, Janie Ryan. Born to Iris (formally Irene), a single, homeless mother who comes from a line of women described as ‘fishwives to the marrow’, Iris has recently returned from London after trying to change her destiny (not wanting to become her mother). After falling pregnant to a rich and married American man, the relationship breaks down. Iris is forced to return to poverty in the back streets of Aberdeen but is keen to ensure that things have changed,’ I didnae go all the way to fuckin’ London to come back an’ be the same old Irene!’ Unfortunately, Iris falls back into her old ways and for Janie; this has a direct effect on her life. The reader follows the protagonist from her first home to temporary care and then to a string of homes over the UK in some of its poorest areas. Janie watches, as her mother gets involved in some abusive relationships, including one with alcohol, and watches helplessly as her mother loses hope.  Towards the latter end of the novel, it is clear that Janie is falling into the same habits as her mother, however, a string of unfortunate event forces her to reassess her life. The end of the novel, like the cover art, is left to the reader’s interpretation. Can Janie break the cycle and make changes to her life, or is she destined to become her mother? This is not only a well-written novel but also a powerful commentary on life within the poverty trap.

Kerry Hudson, Tony Hogan Bought me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma, 2012 published by Vintage Books

©Eilidh G Clark


Literary Criticism – Optimism v Pessimism in Voltaire’s Candide and Johnson’s Prince of Abissinia



Optimism in the eighteenth century derived from the period of Enlightenment where progress in scientific, political, and religious thought created widespread hopefulness.  Optimists such as Leibniz believed that ‘from among an infinity of possible worlds God has chosen for existence the one that is the best of all possible worlds.’ [1]  With the prospect of liberty and a claim for happiness, ‘faith in reason […] permeated even Christian thought’. Whilst many people were pursuing happiness, others were competing with fears of a cyclical history and the concept of political and religious regression. As a result, an abundance of philosophical questions arose about the nature of the world involving morality, reason, will, and faith. Progressive optimism, which was the driving force of hope in the eighteenth century became contested, and therefore, paralleled with pessimism. The existence of evil versus the nature of God’s good intention in the creation of the world became the defining argument of the pessimist. In this paper, I will discuss the relationship between optimism and pessimism in Voltaire’s Candide , and Johnson’s The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, and argue that optimism and pessimism co-exist and are subjective depending on observation, experience, and perspective, therefore, philosophy has its limitations.

Candide is a satirical novel that takes the reader through the protagonist’s journey from innocence to experience. The novel’s title is ironic. Candide or optimism suggests a positive narrative yet Candide is subject to a high degree of hardship, which suggests that pessimism also exists. The main theme in the novel is storytelling which Voltaire uses to demonstrate that optimism or pessimism is subjective and can alter depending on an individual’s experience and knowledge of the world. Written in the form of a travel narrative, Voltaire links both theories through the experiences of Candide. Optimism in the character of Candide is constructed and Voltaire demonstrates this through the innocence of childhood. This is presented in chapter one through uncomplicated language, humour, and ignorance such as, ‘[The] Barron was one of the most powerful lords in Westphalia, for his castle had a gate and windows’. [2] This is a very childish notion of power that establishes the character’s innocence. The word innocently is used on numerous occasions, which strongly enforces that the protagonist is unlearned and inexperienced.  According to Locke, children’s ‘notions are few and narrow, borrowed only from those objects they have had most to do with, and which have made upon their senses the frequentest and strongest impressions.[3] Candide receives his education from his tutor and philosopher Pangloss who is ‘the oracle of the establishment, to whose lessons little Candide listen[s] with all the good faith of his age and nature’, (Voltaire, p.4). Voltaire is demonstrating how easy it is to inscribe ideas into a young mind. Due to Pangloss’ theory that the world is the best of all possible worlds (Voltaire, p.4) his young pupil accepts this as his own belief.

Candide is unwillingly ejected from his world after kissing Cunégonde. Voltaire increases the pace of the novel by writing episodic chapters where the character experiences a vast amount of misfortunes one after the other. In order to show a pessimistic theory of the world, the author uses a real account of war:

First, the cannons toppled about six thousand men on either side; then the muskets removed from the best of possible worlds between nine and ten thousand scoundrels who were infesting its surface. Next, the bayonet proved sufficient reason for the death of a few thousand more. The total may well have amounted to thirty thousand corpses (Voltaire, p.7-8).

At first glance, the above quotation is presented as Candide’s unbiased account of war. The language and detail prove this to be otherwise because, at the time of action, Candide is hidden out of sight. Even if he were to see most of the goings on, the approximations of the number of deaths and the details of military equipment would be impossible for an individual to observe. The author is, therefore, using free indirect discourse to combine the narrator’s voice with Candide’s. Voltaire’s knowledge of events allows him to satirise optimism, for example, ‘the muskets removed from the best of possible worlds between nine and ten thousand scoundrels who were infesting its surface’, (Voltaire, p.7). This sentence suggests that pessimism does exist in the world and ‘God ha[s] given reason to men, [which] should teach them not to […] imitate animals, particularly when nature has given them [no] arms to kill their fellow-creatures. [4] The author’s pessimistic views of war combined with Candide’s belief in optimism demonstrate that both theories co-exist in the text but are subjective depending on individual perspective and knowledge. The simile that ‘Candide trembled like a philosopher’, (Voltaire, p.8) reveals that Pangloss’ philosophy of optimism is unstable because Voltaire applies the simile to Candide, whose only experience of philosophy is the optimism of his tutor.

Voltaire draws the reader into his narrative by switching between past tense and historic present tense. The purpose of this is to attract attention to, particularly important moments in the story whilst demonstrating the ways in which different characters respond. An example of this is found when Candide and Pangloss reach Lisbon:

They feel the earth tremble beneath them; a boiling sea rises in the port and shatters the vessels lying at anchor. Great sheets of flame and ash cover the streets and public squares; houses collapse, roofs topple on to foundations, and foundations are levelled in turn; thirty thousand inhabitants without regard to age or sex are crushed beneath the ruins (Voltaire, p.14).

The above quotation refers to the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and Voltaire writes the account based on his own experience of the disaster.  In his poem The Lisbon Earthquake, Voltaire says that the ‘lamentations which inspire [his] pain (6) Prove that philosophy is false and vain (7) (Voltaire, p.100).  There are three separate reactions to the earthquake in Candide. For the sailor, the theory of optimism is applied. He ‘dashes into the ruins,[…] in his search for silver;[…] seizes it, gets drunk, and […] purchases the first willing girl he finds’, (Voltaire, p.14). Pangloss questions the sufficient reason for the earthquake whilst Candide assumes that it is the end of the world, therefore pessimistic (Voltaire, p.14). Pangloss’ reaction to the earthquake shows that his firm belief in optimism falters temporarily. This demonstrates that optimism and pessimism are subjective and variable.

Eldorado is Voltaire’s representation of utopia. Everyone in Eldorado is happy and equal. Although the country is sealed off from the rest of the world, its people consent to never leave. For this reason, it has ‘preserved [their] innocence and […] happiness’, (Voltaire, p.46). This is due to the historical knowledge derived from the previous generation who experienced political upheaval and war. Optimism in this instance is, therefore, created. Candide first recognises pessimism once he leaves Eldorado and he describes Europe as ‘illusion and calamity’, (Voltaire, p.70). The metaphor of spectacle and illusion runs throughout the novel to demonstrate that optimism and pessimism can be manufactured. For example, after the earthquake, the sages of Lisbon decide ‘to give the people a fine auto-de fe, (Voltaire, p.15) where ‘the spectacle of a few individuals being ceremonially roasted over a slow fire [is] the infallible secret recipe for preventing the earth from quaking’, (Voltaire, p.15). The purpose of the ceremony is to create optimism for the people and, as a result, creates pessimism for the victims. Voltaire therefore, demonstrates that optimism and pessimism are a state of mind and are dependent on circumstances, place, and reaction to events. This is clarified in the final chapter of the novel when Candide and his party finally end their journey. Armed with knowledge and having experienced both optimism and pessimism, Candide says ‘we must cultivate our garden’, (Voltaire, p.93). This is Voltaire’s final explanation that we must live in the now and make the most of what we have.

Johnson’s The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, is also a travel narrative, but unlike Candide, the characters journey is circular.  The two main themes in the novel are ‘the choice of life’ and ‘the pursuit of happiness’. Written with a pessimistic tone, Johnson’s protagonist seeks to find optimism through happiness. The narrator summarises the moral purpose of the novel in the opening paragraph:

Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope; who expect that age will perform the promises of youth and that the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow; attend to the history of Rasselas prince of Abissinia.[5]

In the above quotation, Johnson satirises optimism by explaining that those who believe in the fallacy of hope will be taught a lesson by the novel. Moreover, in relation to ‘hope’, the author juxtaposes words such as ‘fancy’ with ‘phantoms’ to present optimism as an illusion. The full quotation is written in the present tense in a singular long sentence, which contrasts the young and the old, the present and the future, expectation with accomplishment and shortages with supplies. These contrasts provide a clue as to the moral of the story which is that choice of life is to be found between these contrasting words which are to live in the now.  The word ‘whisper’ seems out of place in this sentence however, it comes from the Gospel when Jesus addresses his disciples “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” [6] According to Ham, ‘Jesus was making the point that we learn some things gradually. We may not understand something at first but with reflection […] we finally get it’ (Ham, 2014). The impression the reader gets from Johnson is that happiness can only be found in reflection, therefore should not be sought. Moreover, optimism and pessimism are subjective to a person’s perception of the present and co-exist as a state of mind.

In order to demonstrate the effects of constructed optimism Johnston describes the palace of Abissinia, which is closed off from the rest of the world. It is preserved by the ‘wisdom or policy of antiquity [and] destined for the residence of the Abissinian princes’, (Johnson, p.7). This reveals that the protagonist’s ancestors were pessimistic of the world and therefore, created optimism in Abissinia as a solution to bring up the princes in the best of all possible worlds. In this creation, ‘All the diversities of the world [are] brought together, the blessings of nature [are] collected, and its evils extracted and excluded’, (Johnson, p.8).  By creating optimism, the ancestors have proven that it is merely an illusion The author goes on to establish the flaws of manufacturing optimism by limiting Rasselas’s choice of life. Rasselas cannot perceive happiness in Abissinia; this is because he has not experienced pessimism. He believes that seeing the miseries of the world is ‘necessary to happiness’, (Johnson, p.13). The protagonist, therefore, seeks knowledge from the poet Imlac whose wisdom inspires him:

Knowledge is certainly one of the means of pleasure, as is confessed by natural desire, which every mind feels of increasing its ideas. Ignorance is mere privation, by which nothing can be produced: it is a vacuity in which the soul sits motionless and torpid for want of attraction; and without knowing why, […] if nothing counteracts the natural consequences of learning, we grow more happy as our minds take a wider range (Johnson, p.31).

In the above quotation, Johnson is suggesting that knowledge is an important factor in achieving pleasure and Rasselas feels dissatisfied because this is what he lacks. By oppressing him in the confines of optimism, the protagonist is unable to feel happiness as his mind is confined within the boundaries of Abissinia. A similar situation occurs in Paradise Lost. When Satan, disguised as a snake, tries to convince Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge he suggests that Eve is ‘Deterred […] from achieving what might lead To happier life, [which is] knowledge of good and evil.’ [7] The difference between the two characters is that Eve has free will whilst Rasselas in imprisoned in his own country. Imlac suggests that learning is ‘one’ of the ways to feel enjoyment, which suggests that there are other means. Rasselas understands this because he presumes that God has ‘balanced peculiar sufferings with peculiar enjoyments’, (Johnson, p.11). In this instance, the author demonstrates that both enjoyment and suffering are necessary to guarantee equilibrium and that the perception of optimism and pessimism are equally essential in order to accept life in the present.

Johnson is determined that happiness is an illusion because an individual can never know how another is feeling. Rasselas explores the choice of life on his journey where he seeks answers through his observation of man. His continued unhappiness confuses him because he observes happiness in others. Imlac intervenes by telling the protagonist that  ‘We are long before we are convinced that happiness is never to be found, and each believes it possessed by others, to keep alive the hope of obtaining it for himself’, (Johnson, p.42). In The Adventurer, Voltaire suggests that happiness is comparative and that we compare our misery to the happiness of others. ‘We can never obtain as much happiness as we might enjoy.’ [8] Unconvinced, the protagonist seeks direction from a hermit whose advice states that ‘To him, that lives well […] every form of life is good’ (Johnson, p.50). The author is clarifying that happiness is not something that can be found, but is subjective to how one feels about their present situation. Imlac confirms this by telling Rasselas ‘that while you are making the choice of life, you neglect to live’, (Johnson, p.66). The author is, therefore, suggesting that living in the present is the best of all possible worlds because by looking for happiness, you are living in a pessimistic state. It is for this reason that the travellers return to Abissinia after searching for happiness and the choice of life and with a realisation that in order to live they must choose to make the most of what they have. Johnson concludes his novel with no answers. He is confirming that optimism, as well as pessimism, is subjective and that you can choose to live in the best of all possible worlds or the worst. Either way, philosophy is a state of mind and we should live in the moment before we look back with regret.


Both novels are pessimistic and satirise the Leibniz theory of optimism. In Candide, the essay established that optimism is constructed through the innocence both in childhood and in Eldorado, where external forces are shut out in order to maintain innocence, therefore, unnatural. This was also demonstrated by showing that optimism and pessimism can be manipulated by illusion, and so unnatural. The essay demonstrated that optimism and pessimism are subjective and co-exist depending on an individual’s perception of experience. For Candide, this was through his unfortunate experiences and how he felt in comparison to others. Similarly, the essay clarified that in The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia optimism and pessimism are subjective. Happiness is the key to optimism in the novel and the essay demonstrated that pessimism has to exist in order to create hope. Overall, the essay argued that optimism and pessimism are a state of mind and are not fixed. Both theories fluctuate depending on what a person experiences and how they feel and are therefore subjective.

©Eilidh G Clark


Delon Michael, ed., Encyclopaedia of the Enlightenment (Oxon: Routledge, 2013)

Ham Rev John, ‘Hearing the Whisper of God Matthew 10:27’, The Footscray Baptist Church (2014)     HTTP://footscraybaptist.org.au/?page_id=91≥

Johnson Samuel, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)

Johnson Samuel, Francis Pearson Walesby, and Arthur Murphy, The Works of Samuel Johnson: The adventurer and idler (Oxford: Talboys and Wheeler, 1825)

Locke John, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (London: T. Tegg and Son, 1836)

Milton John, Paradise Lost and Regained (London: Harper Press, 2013)

Rutherford Donald, Lebniz and the Rational Order of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)

Voltaire, Candide, or Optimism (London: Penguin Classics, 2005)

Wright Henry Clarke, Defensive War Proved to be a Denial of Christianity and of the Government of God: With Illustrative Facts and Anecdotes (London: C. Gilpin, 1846)

[1] Donald Rutherford, Lebniz and the Rational Order of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p.177.

[2] Voltaire, Candide, or Optimism (London: Penguin Classics, 2005), p.3.

[3] John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (London: T. Tegg and Son, 1836), p.20.

[4] Henry Clarke Wright, Defensive War Proved to be a Denial of Christianity and of the Government of God: With Illustrative Facts and Anecdotes (London: C. Gilpin, 1846) p.128.

[5] Samuel Johnson, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p.7.


[6] Rev Ron Ham, ‘Hearing the Whisper of God Matthew 10:27’, The Footscray Baptist Church (2014)      http://footscraybaptist.org.au/?page_id=91≥ [accessed 03 December 2014] (para, 4 of 17)

[7] John Milton, Paradise Lost and Regained (London: Harper Press, 2013), p.220.

[8] Samuel JohnsonFrancis Pearson Walesby, and Arthur Murphy, The Works of Samuel Johnson: The adventurer and idler (Oxford: Talboys and Wheeler, 1825) p.105.