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  • Imagining the Abject in Kingsley, MacDonald, and Carroll:Disrupting Dominant Values and Cultural Identity in Children's Literature
  • Ruth Y. Jenkins (bio)

. . . abjection is above all ambiguity. Because, while releasing a hold, it does not radically cut off the subject from what t[h]reatens it—on the contrary, abjection acknowledges it to be in perpetual danger.

Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror (1982)

"Who are you?" the large blue, hookah-smoking caterpillar demands of Alice in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Shyly, she responds: "I—I hardly know, Sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then" (AWL 49). When the caterpillar insists that Alice "explain" herself, she cannot because she "is not [her]self" (AWL 49). Alice's uncertain sense of self was not unique to this fictional character or her historical counterparts. The cultural transformations experienced by Victorian England remain unprecedented, disrupting and destabilizing economic, religious, educational, scientific, and social discourses. Efforts to stabilize Victorian identity took many forms—from rigorously re-inscribed cultural scripts for gender and class to applied Utilitarian philosophies. In short, the defining features of the era—transition and change—haunted its desires to construct a stable Victorian identity.

Educational, economic, and religious institutions reinforced cultural efforts to clarify boundaries to distinguish what was valued from what was not. Such divisions were layered and varied; class, gender, and religion reinforced distinctions that extended progressively beyond the cultural center. Socially dominant scripts articulated values most consistent with core [End Page 67] values. The further from Britain's social center individuals were located, the more marginalized they became, and the greater the threat they presented to the ideal of stable identity desired by their culture's symbolic order.1

Julia Kristeva's theory of abjection proves useful in understanding the relationship between the governing scripts and those that threaten a secure Victorian symbolic order. In her important application of Kristevan theory to adolescent literature, Giant Despair Meets Hopeful, Martha Westwater describes this openness as creating the "possibility of transforming the present by exposing potentialities that have been ostracized and repressed" (24). Literature written for and read by children and adolescents, then, provides especially powerful opportunities for exploring the relationship between cultural scripts and the abject energies that threaten to subvert them.

A useful way to illustrate this dynamic relationship is with the fiction of the Victorian authors Charles Kingsley, George MacDonald, and Lewis Carroll. These authors' works illustrate a disruptive presence of abjection in the symbolic order. Kingsley's The Water-Babies (1863) includes both the realistic world of the dominant culture and the fantastical world of the water-babies. Following Tom's transformation into a water-baby, the novel progresses from culturally readable and recognizable experiences to those that counter or challenge the privileged values and assumptions that inform those experiences. With this development, The Water-Babies offers readers a depiction of the binary relationship between culture and that which it rejects. George MacDonald's Princess books (1872, 1883) provide a more complex relationship between the privileged and marginalized values than Kingsley's novel. MacDonald's Princess books depict worlds of integrated values and offer readers the possibility of a more inclusive environment. Lewis Carroll's Alice stories (1865, 1871), in contrast, reveal increasingly uncontrolled abjection that undermines any cultural stability, inclusive or not. Read in this way, these texts expose the energies most frightening to Victorians as they attempted to construct a cultural identity. Kingsley, MacDonald, and Carroll all construct instances where the abject successfully transgresses culturally established boundaries. All create aspects of abjection that demand recognition and refuse repression or exile. And all elevate what had been defined as abject, redefining the other as indispensable in culture.

In Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Kristeva identifies the abject as that which the dominant culture must expel or repress to sustain its symbolic order; it is the "defilement" that must be "jettisoned from the symbolic system" (Horror 65). What is significant in Kristeva's theory, however, is that the symbolic order cannot fully rid itself of the abject...


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