That Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children is about family, there is zero doubt. The way it expounds on this theme is atypical, however. Instead of being developed by the events of a traditional narrative, the idiosyncratic Pollit family is brought to life mainly through the private language they share. This language—made up of sobriquets, pidgin constructions, and nonsense words—originates from the family’s patriarch, Sam. It is suggested that this way of communicating was congenital, as his side of the family shares many of his traits. The Pollit’s idioglossia not only makes them an insular and contained family unit, but also sets up the other defining characteristic of the family—and a theme that becomes a leitmotif throughout the novel—and that is one of opposition.
Whenever their private language breaks down, due to weariness, willful refusal to participate, or the adopting of another language, the family undergoes a crisis of identity that confuses and enrages its members. The oppositions within the family are always related to language, as when Sam and Hennie refuse to talk to each other, or when Louie creates her own language to explain to her father how oppressive she finds life in their family. These very specific instances of conflict—husband vs. wife, man vs. daughter—are the more granular versions of this theme of opposition, which is elevated to grand levels at various points in the text, so that we see it in terms of Autocracy vs. Autonomy, Man vs. Woman (Sam: “Women is trouble; women is cussed; you have got to learn to run women” [pg.472], Hennie: “Oh why shouldn’t I live with Sam?—he’s as good to me as any man would be: men are all the same” [pg.456]), the nuclear family vs. the extended family, and Bureaucracy vs. Truth. The family members fluidly slide from one set of oppositions to another, and are defined at any given moment by which conflict they are in.Another subtler theme of the novel is the embracing of spirituality in the face of overwhelming events. At various points, the family members, all of whom are not religious (Sam, in particular, is staunchly agnostic), are forced to appeal to a high power, though this is not done through traditional means (prayer, attending church service, etc.). Instead, this is conveyed through language, which has been integrally tied to the family’s identity. When Sam is being slandered at his work, he says, “God helps those who help themselves,” and, “All things work together for the good of them who love the Lord,” which the text immediately clarifies: “By ‘the Lord’ he only meant an obscure creature of his imagination, possibly ‘the Public Good,’ or even just his own will.” [pg. 310] Later, when Louie is on the verge of being directly responsible for killing her mother, she thinks “Oh, God, I nearly was caught,” and it’s the “first time she ever used that word.” [pg. 505] These of course aren’t the traditional views of God and religion, but for this family it has the feeling of spiritual enlightenment, and in general rings true as to how that enlightenment would manifest itself to an agnostic. The words—no matter who uses them—and imagery—no matter who sees them—have incontrovertible weight and meaning, so that when Louie finally leaves the household in the end and in doing so she sees herself “on the other side of a fence; there was a garden through the chinks that she had once been in but could never be in again,” the implication is both undeniable and powerful.