Ghastlycrumb Tinies and Postmortem Photography

I’d read Gorey’s The Ghastlycrumb Tinies before– I knew a girl in elementary school who used to recite it a lot too, how’d you like to be her first grade teacher– but I’d never been able to put a really solid meaning behind. I felt compelled to either understand it as a statement or accept it as just a kind of morbid nursery-rhyme wordplay, and I always chose the second one, because it was just easier that way.

Our discussion in class has helped me put a meaning to it, though, and now I can actually say I like it. It really works for me as a story of neglect, of children left alone to tragic ends. To take this a step further, I like the thought of it as a memorial. So much of Gorey’s style is in homage to the Victorian era, which was one of grimness and high mortality as much, maybe more, as it was one of formality and grandeur. It was the era of post-mortem photography, particularly of children, which the illustrations here remind me a bit of. I won’t put any in this post, because they are disturbing and sensitive things, but I’ve seen some before in museums and I think they share a sense of memoriam, not to mention an astonishing morbidity. Most of the illustrations are, of course, slightly pre-mortem. But the whole goal of photographs like that anyway are to remember the child as they were, in an era where that could likely be the only image of them ever captured.

I’m not denying the elements of humor, obviously. But I think the work can also stand as as an homage to the neglected children of history, especially in the dark and newly-industrialized landscape of Victorian times that Gorey so often portrays the melodrama and tragedy of.

2 Replies to “Ghastlycrumb Tinies and Postmortem Photography”

  1. Hi Julia,

    Your argument is moving and convincing. I also chose to write a bit on this subject, and was trying to figure out why Gorey would make this choice to use the alphabet to characterize different forms of death. Now that I’ve read your post, I’d like to think about it as a memorial too. Especially since the alphabet is usually learned when one is a child and serves as the base tool for reading and comprehension, it is an apt form to use to depict something about children. It’s possible that all these kids had ever learned about reading at the point of their deaths were the letters. The humorous aspect certain complicates it, but nonetheless, I think it’s an appropriate and innovative form.

  2. Julia,


    The parallel that you draw between Gorey’s work and post-mortem photography [of children] is really intriguing. Gorey’s figures, children and adults alike, strike me as rather ghostly-perhaps not pre, but postmortem, as in the Victorian photographs. Many of them look like they have risen fresh from the grave. I think this is particularly because of the unvarying sunken eyes: deep black pools around the pupils in every single face. It makes sense, because Gorey’s characters are constantly circling around death and disaster, but it is interesting in light of your point, because Gorey’s illustrations then serve as a kind of critical tool. They effectively highlight the perverse nature of postmortem photography, and, as you note the Victorian obsession with “grimness and high morality.”

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