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Distended Youth: Arrested Development in the Victorian Novel


Distended Youth: Arrested Development in the Victorian Novel examines the figure of the eternal child, the childlike adult and other aberrant permutations of the figure who has neither fully exited childhood nor entered adulthood, and the ways in which such figures are made Gothic as an expression of a peculiarly Victorian anxiety surrounding the oft elided or adumbrated transition from innocent and generative childhood to corrupt and destructive adult. It uses Dickens's Bleak House, Brontë's Villette, Eliot's Scenes of Clerical Life and Barrie's Peter and Wendy as texts where childhood goes awry, and is either unnaturally extended, or else returned to after a period as an adult. In tracking an increasingly paranoid literary desire to protect and preserve childhood, both real and in fiction, the dissertation seeks to show the genesis and evolution of this Gothic intervention, and prove that such tracts, rather than being odd detours in the novel, are powerful expressions of social instability at the heart of a staple of Victorian culture.

Ultimately, the dissertation employs the temporal schema that Paul Ricoeur sets up in Time and Narrative (1992) in order to justify the use of this Gothicized temporality not as a flight of incongruous fancy, but as necessary formal underpinnings of a literary body that is anxiously concerned with childhood's telos and the impossibility of delaying social responsibility and adult interactions. It opens up a reading of the Victorian Gothic that is more concerned with arrested narrative development and stasis than with the dominant association of queerness, and it allows the conception of Victorian childhood to better blend the then-popular vision of moral binary between adulthood and childhood with the anachronistic understanding of a transitional epoch of adolescence. Neither able to fully embrace the unabashed erotic love set forth by scholars like James Kincaid, nor fully closeted in an epistemological prison, the representation of children at the end of childhood becomes a project, in the literature of the time, that insinuates the conditions of possibility for adulthood, but refuses to name them outright in the hopes that some children may, inadvertently, never meet them.

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