One of the most tragic tales in literary history is also one of the most under appreciated (unless you count John Waters’ nod to it in Role Models). Christina Stead’s 1940 novel, The Man Who Loved Children, shows the many pratfalls of a loveless marriage and an over-fondness of reproduction well before feminism ever came along.
The Australian author’s insight into the often prison-like nature of marriage was amazingly prophetic for its time. Main characters Sam and Henrietta “Henny” Pollit have never loved each other. Their hatred and resentment grows with each new child they have and each new creditor they owe. Louie, the eldest daughter from Sam’s previous marriage (his first wife died) is caught among the constant crossfire of Sam and Henny’s arguments as they use her for their own strategic alliances within the family unit.
Throughout the entirety of The Man Who Loved Children, Stead displays a keen and unique ability to build tension and continually create events and neuroses that leave her reader reeling, particularly at the climax of the novel, when Louie acts out in a way that one would never have expected.
The cautionary tale of giving into the expected conventions of marriage and children are laid out almost like a horror story. And, if more people were required to read The Man Who Loved Children in their adolescence, there’s no doubt an end to the issue of divorce and overpopulation would result.