“The Tadpole and the Frog” and “The Penitent” are essentially the same story: two people are having a conversation; one complains about his present disposition, and the other mockingly comments that it is their own fault. In “The Tadpole and the Frog,” the Tadpole mocks the Frog for never being a tadpole. In “The Penitent,” the Man mocks the Lad for his self-destructive laziness. The point of both short stories is to make a fool’s folly the comedic punch line. To look at the stories through a protagonist/antagonist context, I think that the possession of mock humor marks a character as the protagonist, making the fool an antagonist. I bring this up because I think the variation of this context separates the two short stories in different genres, one children’s fiction and the other adult fiction. I will prove this by examining the protagonist/antagonist context in both.
Robert Louis-Stevenson is famous for writing both children’s fiction (Treasure Island) and adult fiction (The Mysterious Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). He continues this multi-talent with his short stories. In “The Tadpole and the Frog,” the two are arguing:
“’Be ashamed of yourself,’ said the frog. ‘When I was a tadpole I had no tail.’
‘Just as I thought!’ said the tadpole. ‘You never were a tadpole.’”
The Frog seems to be disciplining the Tadpole. For what reasons, this remains unknown. However, what is more important is the Tadpole’s response. He mockingly comments that never having had a tail is proof that the Frog was never a tadpole. I speculate this undermines the Frog’s authority because if he was never a tadpole then he is not a real frog. Therefore, he has no right to discipline the Tadpole.
The Tadpole’s ability to undermine the authority of the Frog with mock humor makes him the protagonist. I argue this defines “The Tadpole and the Frog” as children’s fiction and can be demonstrated in a similar tale. For example, Jim, the child protagonist in Treasure Island, is pitted against Captain Long John Silver and his crew of pirates, all adults. Although adults ultimately arrest Silver and his men, it is Jim that lures them into a trap that makes it possible. Treasure Island is defined as children’s fiction because its protagonist is a child and, also perhaps, the child is able to defeat adults. If this motif makes the novel for children, Louis-Stevenson might have brought that over to “The Tadpole and the Frog”, making it children’s fiction as well.
If the protagonist/antagonist context of the former story is a child’s victory over an adult, then the opposite is in “The Penitent.” The Lad is weeping for his sins, and the Man mocks him:
“’You must have little to do,’ said the man.”
It seems as though the Man is implying that the Lad is lazy somehow. This laziness must be his folly, the source of his suffering because the Lad is starving the next day:
“’I thought it would come to that,’ said the man.”
The Man knew that, eventually, the Lad’s laziness would hurt him. He says it in a mocking tone that causes the reader to laugh at the Lad’s expense. The Lad might be sorrowful for his sins, as the title implies, but is too stupid to learn.
The protagonist/antagonist context here demonstrates an adult’s victory over a child. I argue this defines the story as adult fiction because it is a demonstration of a child transgressing adult morality and being punished for it. Sometimes in adult fiction, whenever a child transgresses accepted morality, it is considered a threat to adult authority. Examples of this can be found in adult fiction like The Exorcist, The Village of the Damned, and The Orphan. In all three, a child threatens to violently uproot adult authority and it takes an adult to defeat the child. The crimes of juvenile, misbehaving Mr. Hyde are a threat to proper English society, one dominated by adult males, and Dr. Jekyll’s suicide saves it. Sometimes, violence is not needed for a child to threaten adult authority. It can be simply misbehavior. The Lad in “The Penitent” certainly misbehaves by being lazy. If mock humor from the Man is a way of defeating the Lad, then it can be assumed that the story’s motif is adult authority over transgressing child, defining it as adult fiction.
Not all adult and children’s fiction is defined by a specific motif of protagonist/antagonist context in which the victory of one coincides with the defeat of the other. But it is an interesting motif and one that might be a central mechanic to many narratives. Does not the Joker’s defeat lead to Batman’s victory? Sometimes it is the other way around, or perhaps a stalemate. Also, I think the motif reveals distrust between children and adults. It might be too uncomfortable to acknowledge in real life and can only be expressed through fiction.