Tyll Zybura

Sinngetriebener Mensch

Dolls and Demons: Representations of Children in Contemporary British Literature

Tyll Zybura, 13.07.2017

Winter 2017/18.

Course commentary

We all know what a child is, right? We’ve all been children ourselves after all. But to what extent is our adult memory of what it means to be a child, to have been a child, shaped by normative cultural conceptions of what it should mean to be a child?

In this seminar, you will be introduced to the basics of sociological childhood studies, which works on the premise that there is no natural way of being a child, but that the manifold meanings attached to the word ‘child’ are the product of social construction. These meanings are highly diverse when we look at different historical and/or cultural contexts, and they go hand in hand with specific ideological interests (of adults). For example, childhood can be framed as

  • a biological and psychological phase of development (which children can pass through ‘normally’ or not according to adult diagnostics),

  • a state of moral innocence and untampered naivety (which is in danger of corruption and needs adult protection),

  • a state of imperfection and immaturity (which needs adult guidance and schooling),

  • a state of unruliness or even monstrosity (which needs to be checked or exorcised),

  • a political site where the reproduction of human capital and cultural values is at stake,

  • and so on.

None of these conceptions is ‘natural’, all of them are culturally mediated, all of them serve rhetorical purposes, and all of them can be questioned critically.

We will use this critical theoretical lens to study a selection of contemporary British novels with regard to how they conceptualise and represent children, what narrative strategies, tropes, and stereotypes they use in their constructions of childhoods, and how these constructions are embedded in the specific context of British culture and history. You will practice techniques of literary scholarship like close reading, thematic and narratological analysis, argumentative interpretation, and engaging with secondary sources both in a classroom setting with open discussion and in regular individual writing tasks (usually assigned as homework) throughout the semester.

In the last quarter of the seminar, you will do your own research on a British cultural phenomenon of your choice that relates to issues of childhood representation, be it from the area of literature, film, advertisement, journalism, or politics.

Please buy the following novels (if you buy an eBook, make sure you have the means to bring it to class):

  • Doris Lessing: The Fifth Child
  • Toby Litt: deadkidsongs
  • Ian McEwan: The Child in Time


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