Faculty of Linguistics and Literary Studies


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DFG-Projekt: Children and Childhood in Literature

Theory – Narratology – Criticism

Project Description

The aim of this project is to both conceptualize literary representations of childhood in terms of a critical literary theory, and to analyse such representations with narratological methods. It attempts to strengthen and systematise the theoretical approach to the categories child and childhood in scholarly investigations of English literature and beyond.

Our work is based on two premises: first, childhood and closely related concepts such as adulthood, generation and age are central social constructions which are negotiated in literature in a variety of ways; second, literary constructions of childhood, and narrative ones in particular, feed into social discourses of childhood and thus contribute significantly to the constructions of social realities and individual identity formation. While gender, race or ethnicity and class as culturally constructed identity categories have their undisputed place in literary analysis and interpretation, literary studies outside of specialist fields like children's literature studies have yet to acknowledge that the binary of child vs. adult is an axis of differentiation just as relevant. So far, theoretical perspectives on childhood are underrepresented in literary studies, all the while children and childhood are ubiquitous topical elements in literary texts – especially if we take into account that childhood is not just an age and social space but is directly tied to our culture's notions of development, competence, maturity, education, temporality, reproduction, identity and personhood.

The existence of a large number of novels that deal with childhood and are directed not at young readers but at an adult audience in the second half of the 20th century in Britain alone signals a need for a systematic scholarly treatment of children and childhood in literature. This corpus of well over 130 novels provides our basis for a selection of exemplary texts for detailed analysis.

The project design follows a double approach of investigating and formulating critical theoretical approaches toward literary representations of children and childhood on the basis of historical, sociological and cultural studies research (especially constructivist perspectives developed in the interdisciplinary childhood studies) on the one hand, and of formalist and contextualist narratological research on the other. We aim to propose a critical theory which makes the case for the denaturalisation of children and childhood in literary studies and provides the theoretical framework and the narratological methodology to analyse those literary constructions. This literary theory adopts the main premise of the established critical literary theories: that positions in the social and symbolic order are assigned by binary oppositions, organised hierarchically and therefore subjected to strategies of privileging, discrimination and exclusion. Since our work follows the premise that narrative technique takes as much part in the construction of identities, roles, values, and norms as does content, we explore how ideological structures that contribute to representations of children and childhood are enacted, practiced, supported, or subverted on the level of literary form and ask which functions narrative strategies fulfil for the representation of children, but also whether the analytical toolbox is sufficient, where it requires fine-tuning or modification, and where normative assumptions already underlie the formulations of nominally disinterested descriptors.

The theoretical perspectives and analytical tools proposed by the project will help to analyse and interpret the cultural work that literary texts do in regard to the construction and discursive negotiation of childhood in order to make visible how, in literature, power and privilege are determined by age, generation, childhood and adulthood.

The project is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG); it has started on 1 June 2017 and will run until 2020.

Project Members