Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories: A gender analysis

image Uncle Arthur vol. 1
Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories, that inimitable source of childhood trauma, has some pretty distinct patterns in its tales which have become apparent after rereading them for this blog.  In a break from my regular posting format, I thought I'd address my findings here.

For my analysis below, I'm considering only Volume One of the 1964 edition.  Every volume has a "Lesson Index," so in italics is the "lesson" as written there, followed by the story title and description.  I include here only stories primarily about children that purport to teach a moral lesson, excluding only the "Bible" and "prayer stories".

Stories about female children:

Beauty, How to Find-- In "The Fountain of Beauty," Mother agrees that Nora is "dreadfully plain" but assures her that while "paint for your lips and powder for your cheeks" only "spoil" beauty, plain Nora can become beautiful by being less "cross and rude."

Grumbling, Cure for-- "Little Miss Grumbletone" is scolded when she grumbles as her brother Jimmie throws pillows at her in the morning, and is punished by being forced to eat, between sobs, every bite of her cold leftover lunch for dinner that night.  (The fact that Jimmie was hitting her with pillows is never acknowledged.)

Conceit, Cure for-- In "The 'I-Know-That' Girl," a girl is abandoned by her father at Trafalgar Square because she shows herself to be too conceited by saying "I know that."

Contradicting, Effect of-- "Little Miss 'Tisn't" must be taught a lesson because she contradicts people.  The most egregious example is when Father claims to have seen "a little man who was only three feet high" today in town, and his daughter expresses doubt.  "The worst of it," the story tells us, "is that she will contradict even in front of visitors, when it is so difficult for anyone to punish her."  (Great tip for kids!)  So her mother shames her by bringing her teacher into their home to witness the contradictions in action.

Curiosity, Days of-- "Curious Katie" wants to see what kind of custard treat her mother has prepared for her and her friends and hidden in a cupboard.  Although her mother forbids her to look, Katie takes a peek and inadvertently lets the cat into the cupboard as well, who eats the treat.  The ending: "Suffice it to say that pussy received a good slapping, Katie's inquisitiveness was reduced to normal, and the three little girls had a very plain supper of bread, butter, and jam."

Mischievousness-- "Mischievous Maggie" is such a little scamp that, one day "Daddy discovered little Miss Maggie sitting on the kitchen table cleaning his shoes with stove polish!"  (The text acknowledges this was likely a well-intended mistake.)  Another time she takes apart the alarm clock "[trying] to find out where the noise came from"-- "Did you ever hear of such a girl in all your life?" our story asks.  Maggie's father gets a new camera and takes Maggie's picture with it.  She is anxious to see how they turned out, so she opens the back and accidentally exposes the film.  Her father explains that "because of her naughtiness, [the pictures] would never be seen by anyone" and she learns a lesson for a lifetime.

Example, Effect of-- In "Echoes," Mary realizes that her younger brother repeats the rude things she says about her mother's cooking.

Laziness, Cure for-- "Dreamy Dora" sleeps in late in the mornings, so Mother punishes her by putting her to bed with the baby at half-past six and Dora cries herself to sleep.

There are also the outliers.  There's "Mother Love," which isn't really about children, and the only real story about a good girl, "Nellie's Wish," in which an unselfish girl gives her doll to another poor girl in need.

Results and conclusions:
Female children are bad when they are curious or impolite.

Stories about male children:

Courage-- In "The Man Who Could Not Move," a paralyzed man retains a cheerful outlook on life.

Faithfulness-- The reason "Why Victor Slept So Well" is because Victor is an industrious boy who works hard and anticipates his employer's needs.

Helpfulness-- "Wilfred's Secret" is that he runs the "Surprise Package Company," which does nice things for people who don't expect it.

Faith, A Child's-- "Jesus Understood"

Honesty Pays-- "Peter Pays Up" because he eats blackberries from the store and his Grandma makes him fess up to the shopkeep and pay for them.  The shopkeep rewards his honesty by giving him a nice jam doughnut.

...I'm sure by now you get the idea, so I'll just list the other titles and lessons about good boys for reference: Love, How to Show-- "How Much Love?"; Owning Up, Reward of-- "Conkers and Conquerors"; Quarreling, How to Stop-- "How Tony Made Up"; Persistence-- "Kocking Out the 'T'"; Tithing, Reward of-- "How Tommy Opened Up the Windows of Heaven"; Police, Respect for-- "Georgie and the Man in Blue"

Plus, there are at least two "bad boy" stories: Tardiness, Cure for-- "When Dick Was Late" and Greediness, Cure for-- "The Hollow Pie."

Results and conclusions:
Male children are good when they are industrious and courageous.

Lessons learned:
The boys tend to get "rewarded" for the values they embody or the lessons they learn, but the girls are more likely to get "cured" of them.  The boys also all have names, while the girls are often referred to only by the negative traits they represent.  I'm sure much of the discrepancy in the depiction of male and female children can be attributed to the time in which they are written and published, although the attitudes regarding male and female roles seem more in line with the mid-nineteenth century than the mid-twentieth.  The harmful stereotypes perpetuated here are worth noting since these stories are still being actively published today, and many of the volumes have rave (if nostalgically hazy) reviews on Amazon from folks who read these stories to their own children and grandchildren.  Really warped children's stories can be wonderful fun, but unlike the stories where a child gets eaten by a lion, or controlled by an evil book, Uncle Arthur's stories have a very unbalanced message that's easier for kids to internalize and accept as truth.

Text source: Maxwell, Arthur S.  "The Hollow Pie."  Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories. Vol. 1.  Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1964.


  1. I will have to go digging through my mother's storage, but I do remember one Uncle Arthur story about a naughty boy who is "cured" of his behavior. I just wish I could remember it better:

    The boy gets a new bike, and is super excited to go out riding it. His parents caution him against doing some unsafe things that pretty much any rambunctious kid with a bike is going to do sooner or later, stuff you and others probably did some of yourself without ever getting as f***d up as this poor boy gets.

    The warnings were basically "no showing off" "no trick-riding" "don't ride your bike barefoot". I'm afraid I was very young when I heard it, and only the part about the barefootedness really stuck.

    So the kid rides off, and does every single one of the htings he was warned against, and horrible things happen to him because of it: he falls, his bike gets damaged, his pants get caught in the chain, his toes get caught in the spokes (this part scared the crap out of me as a child, to the point where it more or less overwrote teh rest of the story in my memory), and Mommy and Daddy are shown to be the the omniscient, benevolent tyrants that all good parents of the Uncle Arthur Universe are expected to be.

    I'll try to get you the volume # if the mice haven't eaten it. I'm sure my version of it is pretty butchered.

  2. This analysis is skewed because I also do seem to remember stories where boys suffered, were punished or "cured". There was Elmer who was always late and therefore was left when daddy treated the family to dinner at the pier, Boisterous Bimbo, how about the young boy who left his toy cars out after repeated warnings and they were squished by his dad's car, "Look at me" and many more. I think the male children in the stories were just as likely to get cured of naughty behaviour as the girls!!

  3. in the story about the "surprise package company", Wilfrid's sister or neighbor girl is in on the good deeds. "Dennis and the dive bombers", "hollow pie", "sticking pins into billy", "those gooseberries" and another story about a boy who experimented with cigarettes: these are stories about "bad boys".

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  5. This 20 volume set is entirely composed of true character building stories. As always, the best source of these is the real life capers of young children - as humans, we remember the examples of good behavior to be emulated and bad behavior to be avoided. Girls and boys are capable of both and are accurately portrayed in these books. There are often little girls advising their naughty brothers not do do things (like light a fire with gasoline) and bad boys that suffer consequences (one boy has a bad temper-he pushed his friend out of a hayloft, then worked very hard to make money for the family, because that boy was unable to work for a long time). My children and myself have greatly benefited from these stories. Again, these are true reality based stories with a Christian theme. If you are looking for anything else, this set isn’t for you.