The town was built of card and paint,
The gardens were made of tin;
And dolls looked out at the windows, dear,
And all of them asked me in.
And dolls sat round on the chairs inside;
They all were dressed so fine;
They stared at a clock that had never ticked,
And it ever was half-past nine.
“What shall we do to be real?” they cried.
“What shall we do to be real?
We none of us feel, though we look so nice,
And talk of a vague ideal.”
–Lucy Lane Clifford, “The Paper Ship” (1882)
In this (admittedly kind of creepy) story–which I unearthed in Don’t Tell the Grownups: The Subversive Power of Children’s Literature–the narrator sails away to a land where the people are so unreal and hollow that they can only be dolls. It’s a blatant mockery of 19th-century London society. We do well to recognize the pretension of our own modern society, and how it’s tied into the expectation that we all dress up and work our nine to fivers like good boys and girls. How do we play by the rules and still stay authentic?
Or do we play by the rules at all?