“Come away, o human child” : the role of folkloric children in nineteenth-century British and Russian literature
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Cultural production in nineteenth-century Britain and Russia was characterized by two important phenomena that affected the literary sphere and visual arts – a burgeoning interest in folklore and a perception of childhood as a privileged space. In my dissertation, I explore how these two spheres converged in the figure of the folkloric child. I also uncover the semiotic dimensions of the binary oppositions intrinsic to the discourse of supernatural children, such as human – monster, child – non-child, cultural insider – Other. In my comparative analysis of supernatural children in Russian and English folklore, I focus on two main categories of supernatural children – unbaptized spirits and fairy changelings – and note the various affective responses they invoke in the bearers of culture. Narratives that focus on unbaptized children are characterized by a sense of communal guilt, whereas in changeling tales, interactions between the human world and the Otherworld are characterized by battles for resources in a contested semiotic space. In the second half of my dissertation, I show how supernatural children influenced prominent literary texts of the nineteenth century. Analyzing the influence of folkloric children on Russian literature, I examine the works of Fedor Dostoevskii and Fedor Sologub, two major writers with shared interest both in uncanny children and in folklore. In their writings, the folkloric child signifies the cultural anxieties specific to nineteenth-century Russia, from commodification of traditional culture to encroaching westernization and loss of spiritual identity. For comparison, I turn to an analysis of the changeling myth in Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights and Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure. These two novels actively use motifs from the lore of changelings to develop the theme of colonialism and its influence on the lives of the colonized or peripheral Others. The study of Otherness that constitutes the body of this dissertation is informed by Yuri Lotman's theory of semiotic core/periphery, as well as by Julia Kristeva's concept of abjection and J.J. Cohen's examination of monstrosity and its cultural significance.