Thomas the Class Worrier

Thomas the Tank Engine never really seized dudelet’s imagination when he was little.  He enjoyed the stories but but focused much more on characters like the (frankly bizarre) Ballamory or books like “I Wrote To The Zoo” or Maisie with lots of little foldout windows.  He enjoyed going to ‘Days Out With Thomas’ and waved at trains and learned the word ‘choo choo’fairly early on but he never really engaged at a deep emotional level with the world’s Favourite Really Useful Engine.

In contrast, trains, railway engines and Thomas are the centre of Little Elf’s universe.  It’s getting a bit worrying.

Her second or third word was definitely ‘choo choo’. Her first sentence has been ‘Where choo-choo?’ She gets up in the morning, demands mummy, lies in bed with us for ten minutes then demands ‘choo choo’.  I found her sitting on the lounge sofa in the dark this morning waving a copy of “We’re The Steam Team” and chanting ‘choo choo’.   She has a variety of Thomas books and they all have to be read literally dozens of times a day.  And it isn’t just Thomas – she loves trains in general. She’s been known to drag supermum towards the nearby toddler play area which is accessed under a railway bridge purely to stop and watch the trains going over.  One thing which is guaranteed to get her out of the house is a promise of a ride on a train and the site of any picture of a train fills her with tremendous excitement.  Earlier today, we travelled two stops from Clapham Junction.  She positively shrieked with delight on seeing that we were actually getting on a train, insisted on having her own seat where she sat, bouncing up and down and shouting “Whee!” every now and then.  I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who takes such a visceral delight in the much decried function of traveling by train.

The class reading

Now the uninitiated may well be what I’m on earth I’m going on about and may well want to skim through the relevant Wikipedia article.  The one-sentence version runs thus:

Thomas the Tank Engine is a cheeky little anthropomorphic steam engine who works on the Isle of Sodor railways with a large gang of other engines and who is bossed around by a thinly disguised synecdoche for the ruling classes called Sir Topham Hatt.

I’m not the only one to have noted the potential for the Railway Series to function as an allegory for the class system (though eParenting got it hopelessly wrong in positioning the engines as the middle classes).  The original author of the series, the Reverend Wilbert Awdry was an Anglican clergyman and it isn’t hard to see a strong streak of All Things Bright And Beautiful running through the stories.

The rich man in his castle
The poor man at his gate
He made them, high or lowly
And ordered their estate.

This is, of course, the notorious verse from the original of 1848 which most hymnals tend to leave out.  For example, you won’t find it on  the version published on Wedding Guide UK.  The Island of Sodor and the world of Thomas adhere firmly to that principle, however. The engines are hard working creatures whose sole anxiety is to be seen as ‘useful’; to be a Really Useful Engine is the highest accolade that can be given.  “Oh sir!” responds the servile Thomas, as the Fat Controller (later Sir Topham Hat) declares him as such.

The reliable “skilled” labourers, however, the indentured men (though female engines like Emily eventually appeared in Thomas’s world), are quite distinct from the likes of the ‘troublesome’ trucks. The trucks are are the navvys of Sodor, bumping and grumbling and tricking the not-particularly-bright engines into going to fast or leaving them behind or…well, that’s pretty much it. Trucks seem to be gender neutral, a lumpen mass, compared to the coaches who are, encapsulated in Thomas’s harem of Clarebel and Annie, decidedly “female” – passive and towed here and there at the whim of their engine. It is, in fact, a very male series, though Birmingham City Council probably went a little too far in banning the books from public libraries for sexism. It should also be noted that the engines themselves are universally ‘lackeys of the oppressors, given that they are unable to do so much as start themselves without the assistance of a driver and fireman.


The Lacan/Freudian reading

Alternatively, the books are not-so-innocent reflections of their time, suffused with the affection of a life-long railway enthusiast’s for both his hobby and his young sons but implying deeper, unresolved childhood anxieties. The engines are young children, unable to cope without the support of their parents – the drivers are fathers and the Fat Controller is actually their mother or a universal envisioning of motherhood. Thomas’ defining characteristic becomes a kind of deep seated anxiety – on the cusp of achieving a separation of self from (in Lacanian terms) the mother – getting his own branch line – he is overcome by neurosis.  Rather than a class warrior, he becomes the class worrier.


Little elf’s reading

“Choo choo! Choo choo! Choo choo! CHOO CHOO!”


About Dad Who Writes (Gabriel)

Writing, reading, listening, parenting... On Twitter as @dadwhowrites. View all posts by Dad Who Writes (Gabriel)

11 responses to “Thomas the Class Worrier

  • Jane

    My brother absolutely loved trains when he was a little boy, completely and utterly obsessed when he was about three he wanted to be an engine when he grew up and he didn’t grow out of his obsession until he discovered computers when he was about 12 ish and he is/was still pretty interested in trains. Your description of Little Elf’s behaviour reminds me a lot of my little brother.

    My mum used this obsession as the lever to get him reading for fun – books about trains. Going for walks – to see a train go by. Learn his colours – Thomas the tank engine books and when we lived in Harrogate the York Railway museum was always a sure fire hit for a wet day during the holidays

    This love of trains rubbed off on the whole family, I like trains, I’ve been on steam trains, the Settle to Carlisle route many a time, the Nene valley railway. I know the difference between DMUs and EMUs Deltics and why they are important and all about the Tay Bridge disaster.

    I always thought that Thomas the Tank engine was fairly sexist but surely Dora the Explorer will help balance it up.

    My mum bought my little boy a few of the newer, non-canon Thomas and Friends books which may be a little better from the feminist view point I feel they still uphold the rigid class structure of the Rev Awdry and I don’t think they read as well as the old books.

  • dadwhowrites

    Welcome! Lovely comment, thank you – I really do believe in the Canon when it comes to things like this. I’m not serious worried about the gender issues involved in this case – Little Elf is firmly claiming them for herself.

    And I’m learning to love steam trains.

  • charlotteotter

    I’m with Little Elf and her interpretation.

  • bsouth

    You’ve just made our bedtime story time much harder for me. On the one had, I have to light heartedly read the stories as usual (because, yes, Thomas the Tank is King in this house) but at the same time I now have to analyse them to see what message I think they’re giving.

    Perhaps I should be doing that anyway!

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  • Josie @Sleep is for the Weak

    My 15 month old has spent all day feverishly clutching his little Thomas the Tank in one hand and his Percy in the other (which sounds very much like a euphamism now I’ve typed it) so it made me smile to see this.

    He is firmly in the Little Elf interpretation of the Tao Of Thomas. Choo-Choo all the way…

  • dadwhowrites

    God, did I not reply? I’m with Little Elf too, ultimately.
    I think you should only do analysis when its fun. Or annoying for someone else in an entertaining sort of way. Entertaining for you, anyway.
    Josie – snigger. I think I’ll let someone else write the Tao of Thomas. I suspect Thomas’ world is more of a Confucian one, though.

  • nonlineargirl

    I freaking hate Thomas. Class issues aside, Thomas is a whiny little guy. The books have come into our house a bit, and they are INCREDIBLY BORING. We don’t have any channels that would get us the tv show, thankfully.

  • MamaParo

    I hate Thomas too 🙂 Can’t lie.

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