t first glance, The Day Boy and the Night Girl presents all the familiar aspects of a fairy tale: the witch, a beautiful imprisoned maiden and the handsome, brave hero, a rescue and the inevitable marriage and the happily-ever-after. However, nothing is as simple as it appears to be, as Nycteris and Photogen discover.
From the very first paragraph, MacDonald fails to apply the unproblematic black-and-white of fairy tale tradition: the witch Watho is "straight and strong," she but desires "to know everything" and it is this thirst for knowledge that brings the wolf out of her mind and onto her back making her bent, shuddering and finally witch-like. Watho, then, is not driven by jealousy, or hate, or any other obviously evil and thereby unproblematic witch-like desire, but rather, by a quest for knowledge. The irony, of course, comes from the fact that it is not Photogen, whom Watho lavishes education on, but rather neglected Nycteris who first develops the finer intellect.
Nycteris, who grows up within the walls of the tomb and taught only music and rudimentary reading, proves her sensitivity and intellect as she grapples and comes to terms with the unknown. Unlike Photogen, who is reduced to useless fear in his first encounter with the unknown, Nycteris applies her own logic to the unknown outdoors, "No, it is not my lamp, . . . it is the mother of all the lamps." The reader and the narrator know that the wonderful orb Nycteris then worships is the moon, however, her reasoning is sound and her instinctive appreciation for beauty and nature only serves to show her innate sensitivity.
In fact, Nycteris is the model Romantic child; she is charmingly and wisely innocent. The narrator takes pains to remind his audience "why, she knew less about them than you and I! but the greatest of astronomers might envy the rapture of such a first impression at the age of sixteen. Immeasurably imperfect it was, but false the impression could not be, for she saw with the eyes made for seeing, and saw indeed what many men are too wise to see." Education then cannot reveal every truth. Wise men may be rendered blind and only the childlike can appreciate and experience beauty.
A somewhat wise and nearly grown-man, Photogen, literate, educated and courageous, is reduced to debilitating fear in his first encounter with the unknown. For all his studies and his experiences, the moon "was a fresh terror to him - so ghostly! so ghastly! so gruesome!" Photogen falls into a swoon and his eyes, accustomed to seeing in the sun, fail to appreciate the beauty of the night. Gentle, unassuming Nycteris saves Photogen, reviving him and helping him survive the darkness.
The lesson that Watho fails to learn is that sensitivity and innocence must accompany knowledge; Nycteris and Photogen united triumph. Photogen finally grows up and sheds his callow youthfulness, he has learnt that "if ever two people couldn't do the one without the other, those two are Nycteris and I. She has got to teach me to be a brave man in the dark, and I have got to look after her until she can bear the heat of the sun, and he helps her to see, instead of blinding her."
John Locke proposes that the child has a blank mind that must be nurtured with experiences to develop the intellect. Nycteris then appears to embody the Lockean ideal of knowledge and growth, however, MacDonald also appears to admire Nycteris through the lens of a Romantic, her innocence and purity allow her a finer sensitivity and a greater appreciation of beauty and the moon. Does MacDonald truly reconcile knowledge with innocence with the marriage of Photogen and Nycteris? What are MacDonald's views on education?
What is the reader to make of Watho? She is obviously not a sympathetic character, yet her quest to know "know everything" seems uncomfortably familiar. What does MacDonald think of this desire?
MacDonald reverses the traditional characters of hero and heroine. Although Nycteris is imprisoned, she is hardly a swooning, helpless lady. Instead, Photogen needs to be revived by Nycteris. Is MacDonald truly challenging traditional gender roles?
a MacDonald describes Nycteris as almost motherly in her care of Photogen during the night and Photogen clings to Nycteris as a child would to his mother. How does he present childhood?
MacDonald, George. The Day Boy and the Night Girl. 1882.
Last modified 9 July 2007