Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Patterns Vs. Portraits In Literature (Part One)

A couple of weeks ago, I updated my Bibliophiles workshop to include a brand-new principle I'm really passionate about. It's one I mentioned when discussing Anne of Green Gables, and one I'd like to further expand in today's article: Patterns vs. Portraits in literature.

Homeschool readers have instinctively worked on this concept from babyhood. We've talked a lot on the blog about what to do when a character sins (my deepest post on the topic being When A Character Chooses Evil). Sin is inevitable in a fallen world, but how much to allow, and what in the world is Christian liberty, puts huge snarls in the debate.

Patterns vs. portraits is the cornerstone of clarifying this concept.

There are two ways characters can act in a book. A pattern shows us how we ought to act. A portrait shows us how we do act, and where that leads.

 Portraits came in to play during the Victorian age of literature, when children's books were written with protagonists who were essentially flawless. Throughout the story they encountered troubles that they overcame without sinning, or sinning in a very controlled way.

One of the most popular examples is Elsie Dinsmore, but there are others. Take, for instance, G.A. Henty. Each book contains a resourceful young man placed in a harrowing conflict, who accomplishes his adventures without much need for spiritual growth. Harry, in In the Reign of Terror, comes to England fully equipped with integrity. Amuba from The Cat of Bubastes doesn't really struggle with resentment for his master--just a deep longing to go back home. These books were written during an era that produced literature for children to teach them how to act.

Homeschool people grew up reading a surfeit of pattern literature, and a lot of them are writing in the same style. I recently read Faith Blum's A Mighty Fortress, which illustrates this concept to perfection. Joshua and Ruth are patterns of how one should love their siblings, work, and forgive their enemies. Another pattern example would be the Moody series by Sarah Maxwell. The children are quick to ask forgiveness, quick to serve others, and speak often of witnessing and reading Scripture. Douglas Bond's Crown and Covenant series is another: the father teaches his children in complete agreement, and they all hold the same view of Christian warfare.

Portrait literature is quite different. In portrait literature, the son decides not to follow the profession of his father, the girl gets married to the lover her family doesn't approve of, the kid throws a temper tantrum without apologizing, and sometimes life is really, really stormy. Parents and kids have disagreements, wives and husbands don't always love each other, and if someone is your enemy at school, you just might take a little revenge to plague them.

A Girl of The Limberlost is portrait literature. L.M. Montgomery's Emily series is portrait literature (in fact, pretty much anything by Montgomery is portrait) Robin Hood is portrait literature. Robert Louis Stevenson is portrait literature. Getting the drift? My own novel, War of Loyalties, is portrait literature. Portrait literature includes the reality of sin, and the reality that sin is not always dealt with in the correct manner. Portrait literature also includes a variety of lifestyle choices, whether or not the author personally endorses all of them. One of the upsides of portrait is that it can teach truth in a less abrasive way. It can also give a more empathetic view into the temptations and struggles of others, simply by helping you relate to the person sinning. That is not meant to make you excuse sin; it is simply meant to give you a merciful view of sinners, so you can help them more tenderly. Most mercy is encompassed in the attitude "I've been there," an admission you constantly make when reading this style. Sometimes I read a portrait book and end flabbergasted, because I simply don't know how I could react differently in the same situation. Portrait literature teaches us greater understanding of and compassion towards brokenness.

How to Use Both
Ideally, people should appreciate the merits of both kinds. Perhaps it's my personality type, but I am rarely annoyed by pattern literature--I've always loved Elsie Dinsmore, G.A. Henty, and Pollyanna. But if that was the extent of my reading diet, then I think I would struggle with a serious judgmental attitude. Pattern literature rarely takes into account seriously broken situations, and rarely shows an honest-to-goodness struggle with sin. Pattern characters have struggles, but they are not really prolonged and intense. One downplay of pattern literature is that, used too often, it can create a hypercritical and condemnatory spirit in immature readers.

Most readers will choose one kind or the other. They'll detest perfect little missys who always give up their rights, and look for all the Romeos and Juliets they can possibly find. Others read only books that have a character acting as they should act, and wonder how any kind of Christian could read a book where a character struggles with prolonged sin.

But to be healthy, readers need both. If you only read pattern or portrait literature, your understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is going to be really messed up.

The Bible uses both kinds of stories. Joseph is a pattern character in the way he responds to his misfortunes and his brothers. Boaz would be another. Jesus would be the ultimate pattern of sinless perfection. But most of the Bible is filled with portrait characters. Isaac showed favoritism to his boys. Rebekah lied to her husband. Michal despised David and never had children. David never punished his sons' sexual sin and murder. Peter was prone to fear of man, and Euodia and Synteche couldn't agree. The Bible has both for a very important reason. To teach us that God can be obeyed, and to teach us that we cannot obey him. That's why Christ died for us.

It's interesting that all the pattern characters in the Bible are types of Christ--and I would guarantee that most perfect patterns in man-made literature aren't created for the same purpose. Perhaps in the glut of pattern literature we're doing a disservice by putting the righteousness on where it was never supposed to be: on ourselves, instead of on Christ. That being said, I think pattern literature is important, and I'll be exploring why in part two.

If we never aspire to any kind of appreciation of pattern literature, then we're never going to grasp the full beauty of Christ's perfection--that God has given us each a choice to be good, and obedience isn't out of our reach. On the other hand, if we never learn an appreciation of portrait literature, then we won't grasp the depth of our sin and God's love for sinners. We'll think Jesus died to save us from snapping at our sister, and miss the fact that we're saved from the deepest blasphemy and idolatry that anyone could commit. We'll think our sins are never as bad as the people in the Bible. Our love will be lukewarm and self-righteous.

Fellow bibliophiles, don't let that happen.

Learn how to read both. If our goal in reading is to know Christ and make him known, then we can't miss the benefits that both patterns and portraits have for us.

More next Tuesday.


  1. Oh wow, this article is spot-on. It's a while since I've read any pattern books, but I remember I used to be annoyed by the Boxcar Children books (not the original nineteen; the ones after that), because the writers always portrayed the four kids as perfect and infallible.
    But you're right, we need both: we need to know how we should act, and what can happen when we choose to sin.

    1. This concept clarified so many things for me about the books I loved and hated, and why. It also helped give a reason for why one doesn't have to read only pattern literature, as some people would argue. I'm glad it helped!

  2. This makes a lot of sense. You explain it so clearly, and well! Thanks for sharing - I'm looking forward to part two. :)

    1. Thanks so much, Jessica! I'm glad it was a blessing. I took lots of notes for part two and tucked them away for Tuesday. :)

  3. In my humble opinion this is one of the best articles you've ever posted. This concept clarifies so much!

    This sentence regarding pattern literature particularly caught my attention: "we're doing a disservice by putting the righteousness on...ourselves, instead of on Christ". Yes, yes, yes. Too much pattern literature seeks to influence the reader into putting on outward qualities of "righteous" behavior, but the best seeks to show the reader the beauty of Christ-likeness. Then the Holy Spirit can use it to crush or convict or inspire or embolden the heart as needed. It's so easy to confuse love of God (which leads to holiness) with a love of a self-centered dream of being a holy person. It's taken me so long to kind-of, slightly, sort-of get this truth through my thick head and hard heart: You don't become holy by idolizing good behavior. You gain holiness by loving God. It breaks my heart that I'm so immature in this, and I'm begging God to change me.

    One thing I came away with from reading this article is that both kinds of books require discernment from writer and reader. As writers we're prone to want to teach our truth instead of God's truth, and as readers we're prone to serve our flesh with what we read instead of discipline our souls. I know I've said this before, but I really appreciate your persevering obedience and the work the Lord is doing through this blog. I'm eagerly awaiting next Tuesday!


    1. I think that's why some children resent pattern literature. They're quick to pick up on goodness for appearance's sake, and self-made holiness is not something they're interested in by nature. Sometimes we do more damage to good behavior by preaching it wrong in the first place.

      Thank-you so much for your insightful comments. They are always appreciated. <3

  4. If we never aspire to any kind of appreciation of pattern literature, then we're never going to grasp the full beauty of Christ's perfection--that God has given us each a choice to be good, and obedience isn't out of our reach. Loved the whole paragraph, but I couldn't quote it all. :P One aspect that bothers me in pattern literature is that the sense of spiritual warfare is not there. We are in a battle for good, and, like you said, our calling is high. I've noticed that pattern literature does not always portray the seriousness of the Christian life. Without knowing who we're fighting or why we're supposed to live the way we are, passionate love will sometimes be harder to achieve.

    But you're right: we need both because each is incomplete without the other. And I can't wait to hear more thoughts on Tuesday. <3

    1. I loved what you said about pattern lit not showing us why we're supposed to live the way we are. The main purpose is always 'to be good', and the awesome responsibility to love God and love neighbor are lost in the goal of a nebulous personal purity. A militant goodness of spirit against flesh, for the purpose of holding God supreme, is what we're after.

      Love you! So glad you're back after a nice vacation. :) <3

  5. Great article, Schuyler! I'm looking forward to seeing part 2 on Tuesday. While there definitely is some value to be had in pattern literature, I find I'm more often drawn toward portrait literature. For me, stories in which people fall short and choose evil have been invaluable to my understanding not just of the brokenness of others, but also of my own brokenness and my constant need for grace. After all, man's natural state is one of sin and I find it's much easier to appreciate God's saving us when we get to see just what he saved us from. One book in particular that did this for me was Elie Wiesel's memoir 'Night.' I have never craved God's mercy more than after I finished that book, in which the subject willfully turns his back on God and never repents!

    1. Any book that points us straight to the Gospel in its richest, deepest sense is a very good book. I love books that make me hold my breath, realizing that but for the sheer grace of God, it would have been me. It puts a whole new perspective on loving the Savior. :)

  6. Oh, Schuyler! This post was so helpful, and something I have thought deeply about without really knowing where the balance lay, both in my reading diet, and in my own writing. You clarified it so beautifully, and I just love how you pointed out both the portrait and the pattern's strengths and weaknesses, using examples from the Bible as well.

    That is so wonderful! I have never been bothered by the pattern novels very much, simply because they have always been a positive and encouraging element in my growing up years. My parents always encouraged my sisters and me to read those type of stories when we were younger, and that makes total sense, because they really did not want me to imbibe any attitudes, actions or vices from a rather foolish, messed up character but rather learn and look up too godly characters, virtues and faith. So I have loved the Pollyanna and Heidi stories! :D (I think my short-story for "A Love that Never Fails" falls into the pattern literature, though now with its expansion into a novel, it is looking more like a portrait novel every day!). However, as I've grown older, I've more and more empathised and appreciated the portrait literature and have found so many things to learn from those books, so much so that I feel much more able to enjoy that type of literature than before - The Lord of the Rings, North and South, Jane Eyre, Little Dorrit, A Tale of Two Cities, Ben Hur, etc. I think my understanding too of the Scriptures has changed, in reading about Abraham and Sarah, David, Peter, Isaac, Moses, Rebecca, Samuel, and the Disciples. . . they were flawed men and women, and God had to work in their lives drastically and through many trials and through His grace - not their own super strength!

    I really appreciated this post, and it helped clear a little light for me, in the kind of difference between those two types of literature. I look forward to the continuation of this blog series!

    God bless, Schuyler!

    1. Like you, my parents were careful with the books they gave us, and I think I also naturally sought out pattern literature. While children are young, reading pattern lit is wise to correctly shape their actions and affections. But as they grow older, I heartily recommend adding portrait lit so they can practice discernment, and won't become exasperated with unrelatable characters. But it will depend in part on the child, and what they need as well. :) It worked for me, at least!

      I'm glad it helped clarify and explain some things! That is always the hope, Lord-willing, with each blog post. :)


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