Infantile informers : the child narrator as mitigator of sentiment in sentimental political fiction : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in English at Massey University, Distance, New Zealand

Thumbnail Image
Open Access Location
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
Massey University
The Author
From Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tim’s Cabin to Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, the genre of sentimental political fiction—fiction that tugs on our heartstrings for socio-political end—is often circumscribed to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This thesis, however, traces the extension of this tradition, widely condemned for its manipulative, moralistic and mawkish character, into contemporary literary culture. Through close analysis of a series of politically- charged twentieth- and twenty-first century literary novels that feature a child narrator—Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, Lloyd Jones’ Mr Pip, and NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names—the thesis argues that the device of the child narrator has helped these novels evade the accusations of “mawkish sentimentality” that tarnished their nineteenth-century kin. As it will show, our western understanding of childhood as naïve and unschooled enables the child narrator to disguise sensationalism, subjectivism and didacticism, ensuring that, unlike their historical counterparts, these novels tug on our heartstrings in the pursuit of a socio-political agenda without foregoing critical acclaim. Method: Other than close reading, the primary method employed to substantiate this claim is reader response theory. Thus, reviews of the novels, both reader and scholarly, feature strongly as evidence that these novels escape aspersions of sentimentality. Methodology: Though there are no studies directly addressing the work of the child narrator in fiction, the two main bodies of work in which this thesis intervenes are the literature on sentimental political fiction and the literature on the depiction of children in fiction. In addition, this thesis draws on two areas of study that inform the research. The first is the field of childhood studies, focussing specifically on the child narrator, rather than just the child. This field provided the framework for interpretation of the various models of childhood which inform the way that each novel constructs their child narrator. The second is affect theory, which helped ground speculations about the way tonal nuances in both the primary and secondary texts can affect our response to the message these texts impart. This thesis, then, not only fills a critical gap, but also suggests that the very fact that critics have ignored the device testifies to its efficient subterfuge and, in this sense as the child narrator has the capacity to foment genuine social awareness, they should no longer be overlooked.
Sentimentalism in literature, Children in literature, Political fiction, History and criticism