The Child of the Jago was published in 1896, five years after the demolition of the Jago itself – which was originally called Nichol. The debate on the reasons why Arthur Morrison wrote a book about a place that did not even exist was an important part of the literary critics’ accuses of depicting an unreal place.
Despite the fact that Arthur Morrison claimed he had visited the Jago and knew what he was talking about, the influence of Father Jay, vicar of Holy Trinity Shoreditch, was questioned by many critics. They stated that Arthur Morrison’s description of the Jago was based only on the vicar’s point of view, and the critic Herny Duff Traill even interviewed some people who had lived in the Nichol and who could deny what Morrison had said in his book about that place. What seems very interesting about this debate was that it did not make easy for the future readers to state clearly what was Morrison’s objective when writing the book. As he himself said, his purpose was to write about the process of corruption of a decent boy. The lifestyle and the social circumstances of the Jago did not permit to the most innocent person to have a normal life. People who lived there were bound to be criminals, and that’s exactly what happened to Dicky.
But this account of Morrison’s purpose does not seem to include all the complexities that the book itself expresses. People in the Jago can change. They can conduct some normal lives, and some of them manage to do it. Father Sturt (who is the fictionalized Father Jay) helps those people “to go straight”, and he makes the same attempt with Dicky. But Dicky cannot do that. He commits his first theft when he is eight, and he keeps on stealing until he dies in a fight. He is a complex character, he knows that what he does is wrong. He can feel that. But at the same time, he’s terribly angry. The whole book seems to be about Dicky’s path toward the awareness that life is not fair.
The critics compared the book to Oliver Twist, but as an Italian student I found some parallels with Giovanni Verga’s short story Rosso Malpelo, which is set in Italy at the end of the 19th century and it’s about a boy who struggles for life in the mine where he works. Of course, the context is totally different, but Rosso Malpelo is a young man who tries to find the good part of himself and cannot do that because the social circumstances in which he finds himself don’t permit it. His father died in the mine and the rest of his family almost left him. The people of the mine despise him and Malpelo feels terribly lonely. As Dicky, his best friend is a little, old donkey. Rosso Malpelo mistreats the donkey and then cries. He is confused, he’s cynical and idealist at the same time, just like Dicky is. He is good and bad. The mixed moral values that his family and his social condition gave him are constantly influencing his behaviour. He knows that he should try to fix his life. He even tries it and he has never been happier when he does. But the Jago has different rules. The rules that Morrison tried to learn from Father Jay, from visiting the Nichol and from interviewing people who had lived and known the place.
So, from a certain point of view, Morrison knew that his message could not only include a pessimistic view about the impossibility to “be good” in such a terrible environment. His attempt to represent and depict the true Nichol could have failed to satisfy many critics, but, since the power of all the characters give a vivid idea of the atmosphere of the place, it seems like the whole book is not about being completely good either completely being bad. Dicky is not bad and is not good. He is simply human. And humanity is more realistic than the detailed, historically accurate description of a place that does not exist any more.