Image of children sitting on the floor in a classroom, raising their arms.

Review: The Wild Boy

Gareth B. Matthews

Review of The Wild Boy by Mordecai Gerstein (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998).  Originally published in Thinking: The Journal of Philosophy for Children 14(3): 3.

Once there was a boy who lived alone, without a mother or father or any friends, in a forest in Southern France. He was naked. He didn’t even know what clothes are. He didn’t know he was a boy. He didn’t know what people are. He was wild.

This boy did know how to survive in the woods, even in a harsh winter. He ate plants, berries, and roots. Sometimes animals attacked him, but each time he escaped. His body was covered with scars.

One day hunters spotted this wild boy. At first they thought he was an animal. They chased him through the woods. He tried to escape up a tree. But the hunters caught him and brought him to a town, where people stared at him. The wild boy look back at them, they had never seen a wild boy. He had never seen people. The town officials took charge of the wild boy. They tried to give him orders. But he didn’t know what orders are. He didn’t even know what words are. The boy tried to run away, but the officials caught him and put him on a leash. They tried to put clothes on him, but he tore the clothes off. All he would eat were walnuts and baked potatoes.

Scientists wanted to study the wild boy. So he was taken to Paris, where these scientists shouted at him and fired pistols in his presence to deter­mine if he was deaf. He didn’t blink. But he turned his head when a walnut was cracked in the next room. He loved walnuts. After weeks of examination the scientists gave up on the boy, whom they considered hopeless. All of them lost interest in the wild boy, except for one, Dr. ltard.

Dr. Itard took the boy home with him and became his teacher. The doc­tor and his housekeeper, Madame Guerin, looked after him. They named him ”Victor.” They took him for runs in the country. They gave him his own room and lots of the food he craved. They taught him to dress himself. He came to love the feel of Madame Guerin’s dress.

Dr. Itard developed ways of testing Victor’s intelligence. He also tried to teach Victor how to speak, but he failed. Frustrated, the doctor almost decided to return Victor to the wild. Victor cried. The doctor immediately relented and hugged Victor.

Painstakingly, the doctor taught Victor to recognize letters of the alphabet, and then words. Victor learned to write words down. But then one day Victor ran away. The police searched for him and found him. When he was returned to Madame Guerin, Victor cried for joy.

Victor learned to be helpful around the house. He made progress in his studies. He had become a real person. But he never learned to speak. So he could never tell the doctor or Madame Guerin of his life in the wild.

Dr. Itard put Victor to bed each night. He kissed him and said “Good night.” Sometimes, especially if the moon was full, the doctor would look back at Victor before he left the room. Victor would be gazing transfixed at the moon. The doctor wondered what Victor was thinking, what he was feeling. He would never know.

This sensitively written and beautifully illustrated picture book recreates the true story of the wild child of Aveyron, who was captured in Southern France two hundred years ago. It is based on Dr. Itard’s diary and Franois Truffaut’s famous film, The Wild Child (1970).

The story invites us to ask ourselves who we are, and what makes us human beings. One way to think about these questions is to consider how we differ from nonhuman animals. Clearly we are quite different from the dogs and cats that are our pets. But what about monkeys and, especially, chimpanzees? Clearly they are much more like us. What is the difference between us and them?

Philosophers have said that the big difference between us and even the most intelligent nonhuman animals is that we have speech and they don’t. But this claim is controversial. Animals do have ways of communicating among themselves. And chimps can be taught American Sign Language.

More simply, our pets can be taught to obey our spoken commands. And a dog’s soulful eyes may speak to us eloquently. Still, dogs can’t exactly tell us what happened while we were away.

Neither, of course, can a human baby. Yet the baby is undeniably human. So what is it that marks off even an infant human being from other animals? Is it the potentiality for eventually telling us how the world is to them? If so, then what the story of the wild child suggests is that this precious potentiality is not something human infants possess all by themselves. Left to themselves, they, like Victor, would never learn to tell us their life stories. Without family or friends, they would never become fully human. So we are not fully human either, just by our­ selves.

The story of the wild child of Aveyron, so lovingly told and drawn by Mordicai Gerstein, is a good way to begin reflections like this, and see where they lead.