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Unit information: Literature's Children in 2018/19

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Unit name Literature's Children
Unit code ENGL39015
Credit points 20
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 1 (weeks 1 - 12)
Unit director Dr. Matthews
Open unit status Not open




School/department Department of English
Faculty Faculty of Arts


This unit is an introduction to the figure of the child in English literature of the nineteenth and twentieth century. How and for what purposes has the child been deployed in literature, both as a character and as an implied reader? How is the child (reader or character) constructed as different from the adult, and how does the advent of psychoanalytic models of subjectivity at the turn of the century affect the construction of childhood? How are child characters used to explore concepts such as innocence, nature, knowledge, goodness and evil? How are implied child readers positioned in relation to adults, and in relation to ideology and the reproduction of cultural knowledge? What narrative and literary techniques are used to achieve this positioning?


The unit aims to introduce students to some of the manifold narrative, ideological and conceptual purposes served in literature by the figure of the child since around 1850. Through readings of literary texts featuring child characters in conjunction with theoretical and historical studies of childhood and its cultural valences, students will be introduced to (1) the Rousseauist roots of the idea of childhood innocence, as well as to twentieth-century fantasies of the evil child or bad seed; (2) psychoanalytic theories of subjectivity, with their emphasis on the determining nature of childhood experiences for later life; and (3) the equivocal position of the child in relation to knowlege (do children see more clearly than acculturated adults, or does their lack of adult knowledge render them incapable of understanding?). Students will then move on to studying some key texts written for children: they will be introduced to the major debates in children's literature theory and criticism about (4) the position of narrator and implied reader; and (5) the ideological function of children's literature.

Intended learning outcomes

On completing the course, students should be able to:

  1. Understand and critically evaluate arguments that childhood is culturally constructed and historically variable;
  2. Appreciate the impact of Freudian psychoanalysis on twentieth-century understandings of childhood;
  3. Understand and critically evaluate the idea that the child reader of a childrens book is a construction of the text;
  4. Understand and critically evaluate contemporary debates in childrens literature theory about the relationship between narrator and implied reader;
  5. Critically analyse the construction of childhood and its function in literary texts from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Teaching details

1 x 2 hour seminar per week.

Assessment Details

  • 1 essay of 2,000 words (40%)
  • 1 essay of 3,000 words (60%)

Both summative elements will assess ILOs 1 - 5.

Reading and References

  • James Barrie, Peter Pan and Wendy (1911)
  • Dennis Cooper, My Loose Thread (2002)
  • Hugh Cunningham, The Invention of Childhood (2006)
  • Henry James, What Maisie Knew (1897)
  • David Rudd, The Routledge Companion to Children's Literature (2010)
  • Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963)