Saturday, September 5, 2009

Could a small boy be evil?

The offender in the Cool Whip incident.*

Thanks for all your excellent posts and comments so far, everyone. I'd like to draw attention to one of Geoff's comments:
[...] I do think that part of the reason the kids seem so evil is that they initially seem innocent, but I what I found disturbing was not that the children were talking to ghosts (I shall assume that the ghosts are, in fact, real here, and that the children had contact with them), but the manner in which they handled theselves.

They act much more composed than I think that 10 and 8 year olds that can converse with ghosts should. A normal 10 year old, in my opinion, would either be scared out of their wits to have seen a ghost, or would be really proud about it and boast about it. The fact that they quietly hide their encounters away seems to me to imply that they know what they are doing is wrong, and they like doing it.

Why this is different than a kid hiding the fact that they did something like break a lamp, or steal some cool whip, I'm not quite sure. Maybe it's just the magnitude of the action they are hiding. But I think it also has a lot to do with the motive. A normal kid hides the fact that they did something wrong to avoid punishment. Miles and Flora hide the fact that they can see ghosts either to drive the governess mad, or so that they can continue to consort with the ghosts. [emphasis added]

Geoff is asking whether Miles and Flora's creepiness is different from ordinary childhood misbehavior in degree (magnitude) or in kind. Is it the same kind of misbehavior, amped up -- another "turn of the screw"? Or does Miles and Flora's behavior belong to another category altogether? In one comment, a.magana suggests that they belong to different categories. Mere badness is a matter of perspective, she argues, but real evil violates some fundamental standard that admits of no doubts. Hanh agrees, writing, "I think that evil already has a somewhat set standard whereas bad takes on many interpretations."

Geoff also points out that what's disturbing about Miles and Flora is not so much what they do but how they do it. Getting up and looking out the window, or wandering outside at night, aren't exactly the epitome of evil. Rather, "the manner in which they handl[e] themselves"--their style--is what makes it so odd. Jimmy made a similar point in class when he argued that there was something particularly creepy about Miles calling the governess "my dear" (204). The only actual thing he does in that scene is blow out a candle -- peculiar, perhaps, but again, hardly the work of a junior Voldemort.

I like the word that Geoff uses, "manner," because it suggests not just behavior, but behavior within the context of certain social codes. As you read the selection from Leviathan and the Air-Pump this weekend (warning: it's long!), think about how manners figure in Shapin and Schaffer's account of scientific knowledge.

*I asked his permission before posting these photos.


  1. One must also take into consideration whether the children were "evil" by nature or was it a manifestation of the time the children spent with the Peter Quint and Mrs. Jessel while they were still alive.

    I definitely agree that it was not so much their actions that made them seem so "evil" but it was in their "manner," a twist in intent as though the children seemed to have a hidden motive.

    I also found it interesting that although Miles and Flora were thought to be bad, the Governess was still willing to protect them from a greater evil and take comfort in their innocency, be it honest or a front.

  2. I find it interesting that the concept of evil children is easily accepted in stories, but few people believe that evil children exist in real life. We equate evil with people such as Hitler, but it's hard to grasp the idea of "evil" for those at such a young age.

  3. If there are similar children to Miles and Flora in real life, we would be quick to judge them as bad. Although "bad" is seen as a phase, evil is a permanent characteristic that, for me especially, is hard to use as a description for children. In any case, Miles defines the description of an evil child.


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