The role of death in the literature provided to school children in the twentieth century deserves close attention.

I have written previously about the way in which school readers, for example, were intended to influence children to behave in morally desirable ways – often influenced heavily by protestant Christianity.

What I have ignored in these discussions is the stakes proposed by moral narratives. In many cases, the stakes are high – the outcome for those who fail to act in a moral way is death, either for themselves or for one in their close proximity.

One of my favourite examples of this comes from New South Wales educator Percival R Cole‘s book Civics and Morals, published in 1905:

Often we do not know when we are well off. There were once two asses laden, the one with flour, the other with gold. The one laden with gold was very proud, for he had a bright, beautiful set of harnesses, with a number of pretty, jingling bells. The other had only leather harness. The ass laden with gold was very proud of his distinction, although certainly his load was the heavier of the two. Suddenly two robbers darted out, and put the owners of the asses to flight. They took no notice of the ass that carried flour, but as the other struggled to protect his burden, they pierced him to the heart, and he fell to the earth dying. “Ah,” he said to his companion, “I wish now that I had only carried flour. But for my high honours I should now be safe and happy like yourself.” So saying, he breathed his last.[1]

Here we see two themes that are evident throughout moral narratives of this genre invoking death: that it is an animal who dies, and that the creature realises, dying, what a grave error it has made.

Similar stories appear in the Queensland School Readers. A Grade I reader from 1948 contains a story about a little mouse who, flattered by a cat, and tempted with promises of cheese, chooses to ignore her mother’s warnings that the cat will kill and eat her. She agrees to go play with the cat’s kittens. As they begin to play she realises her error:

“Oh! Oh!” cried Mousie, “your claws hurt me. I do not think that this is fun at all.”

But Tabby said, “I brought you here to please the kittens, and they seem to like it, You must just let them have their own way.”

The cats played with her, and scratched her, and at last they killed and ate her. Poor Mousie! why did she not do what her mother told her?[2]

The ultimate punishment, then, seems to be inflicted upon animals who act immorally even where their crime is not one which would generally be considered severe. Neither the vanity of the as nor the disobedience of the mouse are offences which would merit death if they were perpetrated by human characters. Animals, it seems, can be killed for the sake of teaching a lesson.

And so I turn to a final example – one which actually shocked me, and which led me to look  for further instances of death as a punishment for immorality in school children’s literature. This example comes from The School Paper, a publication released by the Department of Public Instruction, Queensland. The issue is from November 1933 (front page shown).

The story, The White Goat, is attributed to Alphonse Doudet. Blanchette, a little white goat, grows tired of her life. She is kept tied by a rope to a stake in a small meadow by a hedge. Blanchette escapes, running into the mountains. She delights in her newfound freedom:

Once, coming to the edge of a slope with a bit of laurel in her teeth, she saw below, far below in the plain, the house of her master with the meadow behind it; and she laughed till she cried. “How small it is!” she said. “How could I ever have lived there?” Poor little thing! Being perched so high, she fancied she was as tall as the world.[3]

This freedom, and this joy, is short-lived. Blanchette is soon found by a wolf. The two fight, the violence and pain of the battle depicted in detail. I include the battle scene in full here:

Blanchette felt she was lost. For an instant, she thought to herself it was better, perhaps, to be eaten at once; but then, thinking otherwise, she put herself on guard, head low, horns forward, like the brave little goat that she was. Not that she had any hope of killing the wolf – goats can’t kill wolves – but only to hold out as long as she could. Then the monster advanced, and the pretty little horns began to dance.

Ah, the brave goatling, with what heart she went at it. More than ten times she made the wolf draw back to get breath. During each of these truces, the dainty little thing nibbled one more blade of her dearly loved grass; then, with her mouth full, she returned to the combat. It lasted all through the night. From time to time, the little white goat looked up at the stars as they danced on the cloudless sky, and said to herself, “Oh, if I can only hold out till dawn!”

One after another, the stars went out. Blanchette redoubled the blows of her horns, and the wolf the snap of his teeth. A pale glean showed on the horion. The hoarse crowing of a cock arose from a barnyard. “At last!” said the poor little goat, who had only awaited the dawn to die; and she stretched herself out on the ground in her pretty white coat all spotted with gore. Then the wolf fell upon her, and ate her up.[4]

Blanchette’s death is slow – the slowest and most brutal of any I have come across thus far in materials intended for school students. Her crime, like the crimes of other animals in these texts, appears minimal: she wished to escape from the confines of her limited existence.

I intend to examine this further. What is it about attitudes to death in the early-mid twentieth century – and earlier – that led authors to use death as a means of bringing home their moral messages? Why is it animals who are portrayed as being killed in this way, and why for such minor (to modern eyes) offences?

[1] Percival R Cole, Civics and Morals, 2nd Edition (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1905), 43.

[2] Queensland Department of Public Instruction, Queensland School Reader: Grade I (Brisbane: Queensland Government Printer, 1948), 18.

[3] Department of Public Instruction, Queensland, The School Paper: Grades VI and VII, vol. 1, 1933, 73.

[4] Ibid., 73-74.