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Exploring Child Worlds: Functions of Infantilization in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century British Literature

  • Author(s): Auxier, Mary
  • Advisor(s): Zieger, Susan
  • et al.
Abstract

Through the 18th and 19th centuries a new concept of childhood emerged, and with it came a new genre of literature designed to educate and entertain child readers. This development culminated toward the end of the19th century with the so-called Golden Age of children's literature. The books of this era were characterized by a heightened sense of imagination and play--often portrayed through a fantasy world created uniquely for the child. Texts such as Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and J.M. Barrie's Peter and Wendy (1911) illustrate what I am calling Child Worlds. Through the uniquely child-centered settings of Wonderland and Neverland, these books set themselves apart from children's texts written before them--even other fantasy or fairy stories. They do this by creating a space that ennobles the values and perceived weaknesses of childhood. These authors likely knew that their work subverted traditional representations of the child, but with the knowledge afforded by distance and time, we can now see that they were simultaneously undermining a larger system of infantilization in the broader culture. The development of child worlds fits squarely within the greater conversation concerning empire. As scholars such as Peter Hulme, Jill Casid, and Mary Louise Pratt have observed, the New World filled a particular role in the British imagination during the 18th and 19th centuries; it represented the unending potential and exoticism of imagined space. Going beyond this, I will argue that the potential seen in colonial spaces is modeled on the potential that adults of the Enlightenment saw in their own unformed children. In order to truly understand the unique function of child worlds in classic works of children's literature, we must go back and first examine the simultaneous development of the new world in the British imagination, the child as a cultural figure, and the connection between the two through the rhetoric of infantilization. The purpose of this dissertation is to define and explore the system of infantilization, looking at its historical development and tracing its existence in children's literature of the 18th and 19th centuries.

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