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The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead: A Classic of Family Dysfunction

man who loved children

The Man who Loved Children by Christina Stead
Published in: 1940
Reviewed by: Jen
Rating: 4 stars
Find it here: The Man Who Loved Children: A Novel

The Man Who Loved Children is a family saga set in the 1940s. The Pollit family is a dysfunctional one on all levels. Henny and Sam Pollit are trapped in a loveless and unhappy marriage and their discord seeps down to their children. Henny appears mentally unbalanced, unloving, and unsympathetic. At first, she seems to be the villain in the family. She screams and threatens her children and generally behaves in an appalling manner but, as events unfold, we gain a clearer understanding and empathy for Henny who is powerless and trapped by her surroundings. Family patriarch Sam Pollit (who is based on the author’s own father) seems jolly and loving toward his family but, in reality, his childishly patronizing manner and lack of self-awareness reveal him to be far from the story’s hero. He talks to his family in a form of baby-talk, at times singing and rhyming and suppressing any signs of autonomy or independence in his children. Sam is an idealist who can’t see past his own ideals to recognize the squalor and unhappiness of his own family.

I hadn’t heard about this book, or the author, until it I saw it on Boxell’s list of books to read before you die. Although focused on the overused theme of dysfunctional families, it was unlike anything I had previously read. In many ways it is a feminist novel, with its ultimate message firmly grounded in gender commentary. Henny is a horrendous person (or is she?) because her circumstances have made her that way. Trapped and powerless, she is essentially forced into producing more and more children with no thought to their state of poverty, nor any emotional or financial support. Sam loves children but sees them as accessories to his own sense of self worth. He allows his children to run naked, stay up at all hours of the night watching over a pot of fish for his own amusement, and uses humiliation as a way to punish them. Sam claims that he loves being a father but fails to recognize that the job is about more than playing around and using your children to make yourself feel more important. He pressures Henny to keep having children but he does little more than play with them, leaving the difficulties to Henny who clearly does not want more children.

The true hero of the story is Louisa, Sam’s daughter with his first wife. Poor Louie is stuck between two parents who fail to appreciate and nurture her. Louie is trapped like Henny and as a result she begins to empathize and defend her step-mother. Unlike Henny, Louie ultimately stands up for herself and breaks the bonds of family to gain her independence.

Although my description may make this out to be a very grim and difficult book, the interesting thing about what Stead has created is that it doesn’t necessarily read this way. There are moments of silliness that make it all seem rather absurd. And perhaps most scary (to me) is that there are also moments when you think that there are elements of the Pollit family’s dysfunction that are quite common. It is a book that seems light and amusing on the surface, but proves quite serious and thought provoking. I highly recommend this book.

If you enjoyed Freedom by Franzen, you will most likely enjoy The Man Who Loved Children. Franzen even wrote a glowing and very interesting review of this book, which you can read here.

Want to try it for yourself? You can find it here: The Man Who Loved Children: A Novel

We want to hear from you! Have you read this book? What did you think? What other books about dysfunctional families would you recommend?

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. I read Franzen’s review of this one and it totally piqued my interest. I’ll have to give it a shot! Thanks for sharing the wonderful review!

    If you’re ever interested in some other awesome book reviews and musings, be sure to follow! Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    July 27, 2015

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