Freedom and Societal Expectations in the Golden Age of Children’s Literature

I. Introduction

Children’s literature can provide a look at how a society understands its children and what it wants its children to know, do, and think. By reading children’s literature from past decades we can gain a greater understanding of what children of the time were expected to be.

In this blog I’ll be comparing children’s literature to popular texts written for adults by the same authors. Using word2vec, which allows the user to analyze the vector space around words in a corpus (a collection of texts), I’ve studied the ways freedom differed for children and adults in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century. To determine what freedoms adults and children were given and how they were encouraged to express those freedoms I’ve run a series of queries on my two corpora focusing on the relationships and space around and between words such as “moral,” “virtue,” “freedom,” “parents,” and “children.” I’ve hypothesized that children’s literature of the time encouraged children to appreciate the freedom of nature whilst reminding them of their responsibilities at home and as members of society. Adult literature, I believe, will show how adults were dissuaded from expressing this form of freedom. 

All texts were found on and downloaded from the Project Gutenberg website. I selected these texts because of their popularity and familiarity– essentially, because they have influenced generations of readers. Almost all of the works in my children’s literature corpus are still read by children and young adults today. To prepare my data I removed the introductory and copyright information added to the text files by Project Gutenberg. I grouped the text files into two folders, one for children’s literature and the other for adult literature, then zipped these folders and uploaded them to the RStudio Server, where I ran the queries with R. With the number of vectors generated set to 100, I trained each model separately– the first with the children’s literature corpus, and the second with the adult literature corpus (see appendix for a list of the texts in each corpus). The children’s lit corpus contained over 1,110,000 words, while the adult lit corpus contained just over 887,500 words. 


II. Morality in Children’s Stories

In the introduction to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Frank L. Baum wrote “Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident. Having this thought in mind, the story of ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ was written solely to please children of today.” This explanation of morality in his stories shows how writers were expected to include a moral to the story not necessarily for the children, but rather for other adults who believed that was what children should be reading.

In Alice in Wonderland, the Duchess says to Alice again and again “…and the moral of that is…” As an adult figure she is represented as an annoyance to Alice, speaking “close to her ear” and “digging her sharp little chin into Alice’s shoulder.” This scene is even referenced in Anne of Green Gables: “Marilla was as fond of morals as the Duchess in Wonderland, and was firmly convinced that one should be tacked on to every remark made to a child who was being brought up.” As an adult, Marilla believes it is her responsibility to turn each situation into a life lesson. But this moralizing proves to be ineffective, as “Anne wave[s] the moral inconsequently aside and seize[s] only on the delightful possibilities before it.”

While a query for the words closest to “moral” in children’s literature results in words such as “intellect” and “adapted,” a query for words closest to “immoral” produces only stop-words, which suggests that there is no mention of immorality in the children’s literature corpus. (“Immorality” also results in only stop-words.) This is likely because, as Angela Sorby explains, “children were now spotless innocents trailing clouds of glory. Seen from a Romantic perspective, characters such as Mary Lennox, Peter Rabbit, Winnie-the-Pooh, and even Peter Pan can be mischievous or wrongheaded, but they cannot be evil and they cannot be sexual because they are living their own golden ages”(Sorby 98).


15 words closest to “moral” in children’s lit corpus word similarity to “moral”
moral  1.0000000
intellect 0.6104824
morality  0.5887383
readers 0.5791371
disordered  0.5583247
incidents 0.5537800
conception 0.5508883
follies 0.5492588
conferred 0.5443040
relinquish 0.5426737
traditions 0.5394815
fiction 0.5331633
sinful 0.5331633
impelled 0.5314399


Because of the pressure placed on writers to include a moral in their children’s stories, it’s very likely none of them dared to introduce any theme of immorality for fear of being accused of inciting children to sin. This can be seen in the following passage from Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale “Hans and the Miller,” which is comical because of this pressure.

“I am rather afraid that I have annoyed him,” answered the Linnet. “The
fact is, that I told him a story with a moral.”

“Ah! that is always a very dangerous thing to do,” said the Duck.

And I quite agree with her.

III. Role of the Parent

Apart from being frustrated with their moralizing, how do children view adults in children’s literature? In the children’s lit corpus, the words closest to “adults” are all stop-words, which could suggest that children mostly interact with adults one-on-one in children’s stories. In comparison, a query for “parents” returns a myriad of words including “feelings,” “cruelty,” “taught,” and “charity.” This supports my thoughts on the role parents are expected to play– one that places them both in the role of teacher and disciplinarian. Here are the results from the query for “parents” I ran with the children’s lit corpus:

15 words closest to “parents” in children’s lit corpus word similarity to “parents”
parents 1.0000000
feelings 0.5026901
cruelty 0.4954436
taught 0.4737267
charity 0.4734930
husband 0.4682273
industry 0.4645498
own 0.4561538
wives 0.4545515
children 0.4503171
fathers 0.4465222
diverted 0.4454393
lavished 0.4431046
love 0.4405909
freedom 0.4377000

Note the distance between parents and freedom; a relationship exists, yet the words are not as closely related as “parents” and “cruelty” or “parents” and “taught.”

IV. Freedom & Virtue

When generating clusters with the children’s literature corpus I was drawn to one that contained the word “freedom.” In the children’s lit corpus, a query using the word “freedom” will generate a list of similar words (words that occur near “freedom” throughout the corpus) that includes “virtue,” with “virtue” being 16th on the list. This led me to run a query for “virtue” in both corpora. In the children’s lit corpus the words situated closest to “virtue” are honesty, manifested, freedom, and management. In adult literature the words closest to “virtue” are manifest, power, morality, hardest, and justified. This seems to support the idea that in children’s literature, virtue is manifested through honesty whereas in adult literature it is manifested through power and morality.

15 words closest to “virtue” in children’s lit corpus word similarity to “virtue”
virtue 1.0000000
honesty 0.6032418
sinful 0.5853718
proved 0.5801709
valued 0.5769308
management 0.5757691
intercourse 0.5715355
deportment 0.5575956
talent 0.5519474
intellect 0.5512015
error 0.5494803
knowledge 0.5494154
fiction 0.5454264
attitudes 0.5453667
wrongs 0.5428496
15 words closest to “virtue” in adult lit corpus word similarity to “virtue”
virtue 1.0000000
manifest 0.4246053
power 0.4219449
morality 0.4214677
hardest 0.4204216
justified 0.4195857
grinding 0.4163968
industry 0.4131588
conscience 0.4130450
trials 0.4126747
falsehood 0.4119018
human 0.4118860
most 0.4106833
manful 0.4086503
classic 0.4084837


These results show how adults were expected to be more morally self-sufficient while children were encouraged to be honest with adults so that they could be guided by them. Even though children had freedom (freedom to make mistakes, freedom to explore, freedom to learn), adults had the power to limit that freedom and responsibility teach children the correct and most moral way to act out that freedom. 


V. Freedom for Children

In her article “Censorship and Children’s Literature,” Anne Scott MacLeod asks, “Do children have the same intellectual rights that adults have? Or, to put it more basically, are children free citizens of a free society in the same sense that adults are? Should children be encouraged to make comparisons among intellectual and moral concepts freely available to them?”


In the children’s literature corpus, the words closest to freedom are “instinctive,” “religion,” “pains,” “independence,” “loyalty,” and “inevitable.” These words alone insinuate that children instinctively seek out freedom, but that this freedom is not entirely approved of. 

30 words closest to “freedom” in children’s lit corpus word similarity to “freedom”
freedom 1.0000000
instinctive 0.5366396
religion 0.5108611
pains 0.5093494
independence 0.4984334
loyalty 0.4916141
inevitable 0.4915533
motives 0.4887240
charity 0.4876154
deportment 0.4824740
valued 0.4808587
subjects 0.4752788
tendency 0.4752108
griefs 0.4743115
graces 0.4718588
virtue 0.4704119
sinful 0.4695116
skill 0.4688695
worldly 0.4666806
oblivion 0.4627091
captive 0.4603550
indulgence 0.4584276
hearts 0.4575829
exalted 0.4521788
purified 0.4513471
philosophy 0.4499149
elders 0.4476954
cruelty 0.4469922
innocent 0.4456237
administered 0.4445713

While a query for “freedom” alone in the children’s lit corpus shows how the idea and types of freedom were portrayed, a query for the words closest to both “freedom” and “children” results in numerous references to parental figures such as “fathers,” “mothers,” and “parents,” as well as other familial relations including “wives” and “husbands.” This shows how freedom for children was a freedom controlled by parents. Whatever freedom a child did have was never entirely theirs.

his can be seen in a line from Little Women: “Finding the child more docile and amiable than her sister, the old lady felt it her duty to try and counteract, as far as possible, the bad effects of home freedom and indulgence.”

20 words closest to “freedom” + “children” in adult lit corpus word similarity to “freedom” + “children”
freedom 0.9089798
children 0.7159558
fathers 0.6225827
hearts 0.5682904
instinctive 0.5414252
mothers 0.5376944
parents 0.5286899
motives 0.5279005
opinions 0.5181204
charity 0.5160398
wives 0.5156857
cruelty 0.5134863
tempers 0.5050508
their 0.5028554
youngest 0.4920729
husbands 0.4881911
religion 0.4860524
children’s 0.4842544
themselves 0.4805487
innocent 0.4786090

From these results we might assume that children were not believed to have the same intellectual rights as adults because they didn’t have the same freedoms as adults. Children were unable to read solely for pleasure because the books available to them were actually pushing messages of morality. 

VI. Conclusion

To summarize, the freedom allotted to children as shown in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century children’s stories was a freedom controlled by adults. The question is, is this freedom at all? Or just the illusion of it? And how did this influence generations of young readers?

The results of these word2vec queries shows how children’s literature was not free from the morals and societal expectations of its time. While I couldn’t find concrete evidence with the word2vec of children being encouraged to appreciate the freedom of nature, this data does show how children were often reminded of their responsibilities as nearly every instance of freedom in the children’s lit corpus was paired with a sign of disapproval.

Further studies could analyze the role of adults in subverting these moralist narratives, or could pursue the ways freedom and morality were portrayed in children’s literature over time. It would also be interesting to see other ways in which children’s and adult literature written by the same authors differed.

VII. Appendix

The Corpora

Children’s literature texts:

  1.  Alice in Wonderland
  2.  Anne of Green Gables
  3.  A Christmas Carol
  4.  Doctor Doolittle
  5.  Heidi
  6.  The Jungle Book
  7.  Legend of Sleepy Hollow
  8.  Little Women
  9.  The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
  10.  The Marvelous Land of Oz
  11.  Old Fashioned Fairy Tales
  12.  Old Mother West Wind
  13.  Peter Pan
  14.  The Happy Prince, and Other Tales
  15.  The Secret Garden
  16.  The Wind in the Willows
  17.  Treasure Island
  18.  Twice Told Tales
  19.  The Velveteen Rabbit
  20.  The Water-Babies


Adult literature texts:

  1.  The Picture of Dorian Gray
  2.  Great Expectations
  3.  The Man Who Would be King
  4.  The Alhambra
  5.  Behind a Mask, Or A Woman’s Power
  6.  The Little Minister
  7.  Emily Fox-Seton
  8.  The Golden Age
  9.  The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
  10.  The Scarlet Letter
  11.  Yeast, A Problem

MacLeod, Anne Scott. “Censorship and Children’s Literature.” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, vol. 53, no. 1, 1983, pp. 26–38. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Sorby, Angela. “Golden Age.” Keywords for Childrens Literature, edited by Philip Nel and Lissa Paul, NYU Press, 2011, pp. 96–99. JSTOR,