“Toy Stories” takes Maggie Tulliver's “grinding and beating” of her broken doll in The Mill on the Floss as a starting point for thinking about manifestations of childish distress, rage, and shame in the nineteenth-century novel. Using Melanie Klein's play theories, it argues that the child's toy is the archetypal object of the “prosaic imaginary,” at once material and symbolic, internal and external, partial and whole, destructive and therapeutic; an everyday object that is not simply typical high realist ballast but also the stuff of dreams. The essay suggests that the nineteenth-century development of educational theory was shadowed by a prescient fictional vision of childish destructiveness emblematized in the broken toy, and it asks what this might mean in particular for the bildungsroman and its educative telos. Franco Moretti has claimed that the European bildungsroman depends on the hero's breaking with, rather than remaining faithful to, youthful impressions. Startlingly actualized toy stories, however, risk keeping the narrative childish, backward glancing, even as they look forward to an impending modernity and the language of object-relations psychoanalysis. The essay sketches the “toy story” as an alternative narrative working within and against the imperatives of the bildungsroman: “grinding and beating” at its certainties; forgetting and losing its plots.
vanessa smith is professor of English literature and head of the School of Literature, Art and Media at the University of Sydney. Her books include Literary Culture and the Pacific: Nineteenth Century Textual Encounters and Intimate Strangers: Friendship, Exchange, and Pacific Encounters. She is currently writing about object relations and the bildungsroman form.