Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Ashley Dawson


Talia Schaffer

Subject Categories

History | Literature in English, British Isles


child, colonial, India, periodization, postcolonial, Victorian


In this dissertation I analyze the relationship between national and individual development in Victorian and postcolonial novels set in India. My central argument is that the investment in the idea of progress that characterizes colonial narratives of childhood gives way in postcolonial fiction to a suspicion of dominant understandings of progress, and that this difference is manifest in the identity formation of the child character as well as in the form of the novel.

In the Victorian colonial narratives discussed in this study, the bildung of the child involves the overcoming of the child's conflicted cultural identity. The children of the colonial elite are socialized in early years by their Indian caregivers. As the children begin to acquire Indian languages, tastes and mores, however, British adults, driven by cultural anxiety, seek to re-educate and Anglicize the children until there is scarcely a trace of Indian influence in the child's appearance or conduct. Likewise, gender and class identity, though ambiguous in the years of infancy, settles towards the end of a typical colonial narrative. However, the proper classification of the child towards which the colonial novel strains is effected so anxiously that even optimistic colonial narratives like Dinah Mulock Craik's "The Half-Caste" (1857) or Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book (1894) convey an awareness of the fragility of the government of child and colony.

Where in Victorian novels children eventually outgrow their hybrid identity, in postcolonial novels the gender, class and national identities of the child-protagonists never quite settle. The final chapter of my dissertation connects the figure of the neglected child in postcolonial fiction with larger questions of nation formation and argues that the veneer of investment in progress evident in Victorian novels has worn away to reveal a ubiquitous, though uneven, sense of betrayal.

The chapters are organized around texts produced at moments widely considered critical in the history of colonial India: the missionary tracts produced after the legalization of missionary work in 1813, the emergence of the "post-mutiny boy hero" in the wake of the Revolt of 1857, the repatriation narratives that proliferated in the twilight years of empire, colonial writing by Indian writers at the time of decolonization, and finally postcolonial narratives that layer the problems of liberalization, such as a perceived disconnect between the citizen and the state in an age of transnational capital, with India's colonial past. Contrasted with the understanding of history as a series of critical moments is the narrative of slow violence over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: the gradual degradation of human and environmental rights under first colonial and then postcolonial elite regimes. Finally the dissertation looks for new ways forward from this potentially debilitating understanding of colonial and postcolonial history and literature.