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Title: Children's literature and the deconstruction of childhood
Author: McGavock, Karen Louise.
ISNI:       0000 0001 3624 1621
Awarding Body: University of Glasgow
Current Institution: University of Glasgow
Date of Award: 2004
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Commentators such as Neil Postman (1989) and journals such as the Critical Quarterly( 1997) announced the "death" of childhood towards the end of the twentieth-century, two hundred years after it was reputedly "born". Philosophers such as Jean Jacques Rousseau and John Locke constructed modern childhood in the eighteenth-century. Their construction of childhood radically differed from the previous construction of childhood. Instead of representing children as miniature adults and original sinners, Rousseau and Locke constructed the child as sentimental, innocent, natural, special and separate from adults. The modern sentimental construction of childhood corresponded to the rise of consumerism in the eighteenth-century. Childhood was commodified by the consumer society so that adults regarded children as an investment, an object of desire and a civil saviour. Though the child was represented,in this Romantic construction, as in need of protection, childhood was exploited, separating childhood from adulthood therefore created a gap between categories, which provided a niche to be exploited in the marketplace. Rousseau forged a connection between the innocence of the word and of the child. The rise of the child corresponded to the rise of print media resulting in the commodification of childhood through fiction. Texts such as Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) were the first generation of texts to be created after modern childhood had been constructed. Instead of reinforcing and stabilising childhood through the medium of children's literature, however, Carroll's texts undermined the construction and destabilised childhood. The tensions present when childhood was conceived, the child being protected and yet exploited, valued as subject and yet rendered object, are therefore manifested in this fiction. This thesis contends that childhood began to "die" as soon as it was "born". In other words, childhood began to deconstruct as soon as it was constructed. This thesis will explore texts published at fifty-year intervals over one hundred and fifty years, spanning the period from the "birth" to the "death" of childhood. In addition to Carroll's Alice books, J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan or the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up (1904) will be explored, along with C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia (1950) and J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series (1997-). Each text has been chosen since it is deemed to be central to the genre of children's fiction and considered to stabilise the notion of childhood, yet ironically, each undermines and destabilises this notion. Through mapping the deconstruction of childhood from its birth to its death, this thesis will attempt to illustrate the ways in which children's literature has deconstructed childhood since its construction. Particular attention will be given to tensions within and between childhood and adulthood, the ways in which these tensions are represented in the language and characters of the texts, and the extent to which they address and "resolve", "dissolve" or "evade" these tensions. Investigation will be made into the closure of the gap between childhood and adulthood over this period. Since each text is concerned with deconstruction and fragmentation, each is considered to be postmodern. Despite being "seminal" to, and "canonised" as works of children's fiction, they are not religious or moralising texts. Instead this thesis contends that they are theodical in their exploration of conflicts, such as existential dilemmas, the fear of time, death and absence of meaning, and help to negotiate the space between childhood and adulthood. Corresponding to contemporary thought regarding the dismantling of the whole notion of the canon, I argue that childhood is also destabilised. Through utilising a different approach to their predecessors, who attempted to rid children of original sin by didacticism, each text considered in this thesis contributes to the process of cultural, particularly educational, reform, and theories of development. Unlike their predecessors, these writers allow readers spaces to explore themselves, they show rather than tell, confront rather than escape difficulties, and allow child characters to speak directly to the reader without the medium of an adult character. The central character and form of each work symbolises process. Each work can therefore be regarded as a catalyst for change in the construction of childhood and adulthood. This thesis will therefore argue that children's literature was instrumental to the deconstruction of childhood. It will conclude with an analysis of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series and offer the suggestion that since the "death" of childhood in the twentieth-century, children have reverted to being represented as miniature adults. Childhood and adulthood have imploded, lost their signifiers and have become homogenised due to the volatility of tensions within and between these constructions. Children have become empowered in the marketplace as "consumers" rather than the "consumed". The twenty-first-century is therefore heralded, as Philippe Ariès (1962) implied, as the privileged age of adulthood, with emphasis on adults over the child. Ironically, the consumer society, which constructed childhood in the eighteenth-century, is also responsible for deconstructing childhood in the twenty-first-century. Thought will be given to the prospect of childhood being resurrected and reconstructed as postmodern.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available