Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Nancy GosIee


The purpose of this study was to examine the ways in which working-class subjects were constituted by the cultural practices of education in Victorian England, the ways in which working-class subjects resisted and attempted to appropriate such hegemonic constructions, and the ways in which the terms of this struggle were defined in literary representations of self-educated working-class individuals by middle-class authors. In Victorian Britain, formal education of the working poor tended to consist of just those skills they might need to be effective industrial workers. By so narrowly defining the content of education, the educational system participated in a form of social control. But there is an imbalance within the concept of education itself which becomes evident when individuals acquire education for themselves outside the boundaries of authorized channels, to aspire to an educational level denied to them by the social, political, and economic status quo. This situation is represented in fiction about the working-class autodidact in Victorian England. These representations articulate the agendas of the self-educated who attempt to resist their exclusion from power as well as the agendas of the dominant discourse which struggles to defend its position. These narratives present characters who attempt to create subject positions through which they can define themselves and assign a value to their lives and experience that is not automatically granted to them by their society. In other words, they attempt to enter the discourse of power from which they are traditionally excluded. In response, authors of fiction (mostly middle-class authors) create characters who make this attempt of self-fashioning in order to critique the very possibility and advisability of discursive appropriation by the disenfranchised. Quite often, these fictional narratives reinscribe the social boundaries and limitations of the project of self-fashioning, even if they do so with a reformist agenda. This study looked at the autobiographies of working-class autodidacts, Thomas Carter, William Lovett, and Thomas Cooper, as well as the social-problem fiction of Charles Kingsley (Alton Locke) and George Eliot (Felix Holt, the Radical) to examine the ideological underpinnings of these representations of working-class autodidacts.

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