When done right, there’s nothing more frightening than a bunch of Good Kids in mortal peril—making it perfect subject matter for a hybrid fantasy-sci-fi-horror story, and making The Promised Neverland my newest voluntary source of stress every week. There’s a lot to be said for how the show uses its aesthetic and composition to create a feeling of dread, but today I want to talk about a particular set of tropes and literary traditions that it’s tapping into. So what familiar imagery is at play in The Promised Neverland to enhance its horror… and what does Charles Dickens have to do with it?
Let’s talk Victoriana and childhood. Most of the modern, Western idea of what a child is comes from nineteenth century England, especially in terms of literary traditions. For one thing, the 1833 Factory Act saw the first legal definition of a “child” in England, giving the concept of youth official age parameters as well as saying “hey, children are fragile and should be treated with care, don’t you think?”. As technology improved, the economy shifted, and education became more accessible, a Middle Class emerged and with it the concept of the Middle Class family lifestyle. People had more money and means to support their children, and so a market sprang up for this new wave of refined, doting, socially-mobile family, and, among other things (like the wholesome commercial Christmas) the Victorian era saw an absolute boom in the publishing of children’s books.
Most of what we now consider “children’s classics” were released between Queen Victoria’s coronation and the start of the First World War, from Alice in Wonderland to Wind in the Willows to Peter Pan and beyond. This newfangled idea of The Child also featured in many books aimed at adults, and as all this went on a pattern of tropes and ideals began to emerge. As Jackie Wullschläger writes in the introduction to Inventing Wonderland, there were two main trains of thought going on in this shifting social space:
The first was a dawning sense of childhood as a special state, as not just a period of training for adulthood but a stage of life of value in its own right. With this, the child came to be seen as a symbol, in prosperous progressive society, of hope and optimism. The second was a vision of children as good, innocent and in some ways connected to spirituality and imagination: an idea inherited from the Romantics, but transformed by Victorian morality, and popularised and sentimentalised.
The literary ideal of the child as a pure, shining beacon of hope and wholesomeness might seem harmless enough, but it soon became a trope wrapped up in death as much as anything else: after all, if children are pure and sweet and good and special, it would be an awful shame to have that tarnished by the growth into adulthood. Obviously the never-ageing Peter Pan is a fantastical example of childhood innocence preserved forever, but many other works took to killing off their saintly young characters for the same effect—Charles Dickens was particularly fond of this, and, according to Wullschläger, “perfected the child death scene” in The Old Curiosity Shop. Children are just Too Good for This Bastard of an Earth, you see, and for that goodness to be truly preserved they must die and go back to Heaven to join their fellow rosy-cheeked cherubs.
And so we come to The Promised Neverland—a title that invokes Peter Pan, interestingly enough, and that concept of children never growing up. Of course, in The Promised Neverland, the child characters are in fact fighting for the right to grow up, desperately plotting to escape from the system that would kill them off before they hit puberty. The Victorian-influenced imagery of childhood is at play in the series, especially the early episodes, but instead of being glorified it’s used to enhance the horror element of the story.
Gracefield House, the “orphanage” where our heroes have grown up, evokes a lot of Romantic-Victorian imagery: the children’s “mother” Isabella goes around dressed in an apron-and-puffy-sleeves combo clearly influenced by Victorian servant clothing, technology seems limited to pocket watches and oil lamps, and the building itself looks like an old-fashioned farmhouse surrounded by a the kind of rolling, untouched pastoral landscape that the nature-worshipping Romantics were so keen on. The image of the children, dressed all in white, running happily in the fields and forests surrounding the farmhouse taps into what Wullschläger called “the [Victorians’] regressive desire for a pre-industrial, rural world and the identification of the child with purity, a pre-sexual life, moral simplicity.”
Gracefield House is a paradise for the Victorian ideal of the pure, closer-to-nature child who will never be polluted by the Industrial sins of adulthood because they will all be sold as meat before the age of twelve. With the death of sweet little Conny in the first episode, that trope of the “perfect” child’s death plays out, but in a way that is clearly meant to be terrifying instead of sentimental. From there, the Romantic-Victorian aesthetic of the orphanage stops being quaint and instead contributes to the claustrophobia of the place. The children are dressed in white because they are clean and innocent… oh, and so that their clothes will easily show dirt and alert Isabella to potential escape attempts. They live in a beautiful old-fashioned house surrounded by untouched forest… and ringed in by foreboding gates and massive walls. These children are in a sweet Neverland where they will never have to grow up and face the terrible world of sexual awareness and adult responsibility… because, and I cannot stress this enough, they are all going to be eaten by monsters.
The old-fashioned aesthetic is interrupted twice in the first episode: first with the appearance of the futuristic tech the children use to take their aptitude tests (something the kids take as normal, but the audience recognises as a jarring juxtaposition that contributes to that feeling of weirdness and dread), and then with the terrifying reveal of the monsters at the climax. Both cases emphasise, for both the audience and the characters, that Gracefield House’s sweet old-timey vision of youth is a false construction clearly meant to hide reality. The protagonists’ worldview—which could have jumped straight out of a Victorian picture book—is promptly shattered. But, with it, so is the imagery of the nineteenth century ideal of the innocent childhood that hangs over the children as characters.
Despite how much their environment wants to cram them into it, Emma, Norman, and Ray do not fit the idealised concept of the angelic child. As they plan their escape, it’s revealed that they’re pragmatic, they’re flawed and individual, and they’re ready to be ruthless if they need to be, especially shown with Ray’s scheming, double-crossing machinations. The world around them wants them to be quaint and quiet little cherubs until such a time as they can be killed off for the benefit of others, but the three heroes stoutly refuse to play into those ideals. They’re not here to serve the needs and narratives of the adults in their lives, they want lives of their own. Agency is their prime motivation, bucking the notion that children don’t (or shouldn’t) have agency of their own. It is literally monsters who are preserving them in this false, romanticised vision of childhood and denying them a future.
That the introductory episodes of The Promised Neverland so clearly draws from these old tropes and ideals, and presents them as stifling, false, and horrifying, makes for a fascinating look at how our perceptions of childhood in media have changed over the years, as well as how good old juxtaposition can give audiences the heebie-jeebies. What was once seen as pure and lovely imagery is here presented as the framework for something terrible—a set of old and stifling tropes the characters must physically escape from. Children are not saints to die for a cause and be preserved forever in pre-adolescent “purity”, they are little rowdy human beings who want their own agency and want to be given the chance to grow up. I can only hope that Emma will be able to lead her fellow kids to a “Neverland” of their own choosing as the adventure continues.