Date of Award

2016

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

English

First Advisor

Jed Esty

Second Advisor

Paul K. Saint-Amour

Abstract

This project proposes that one of the most enduring cultural legacies of the Second World War was the welfare state’s fantasy of rebuilding Britain. Beginning with the 1942 Beveridge Report’s promise to care for citizens “from the cradle to the grave,” the welfare state envisioned that managing individuals’ private lives would result in a more coherent and equitable community. Literature records this historic transition in order to narrate its transformative social potential, as well as its darker failures. Midcentury writers Elizabeth Bowen, George Orwell, and Muriel Spark used the militarized Home Front to present postwar Britain as a zone of lost privacy and new collective logics. As the century progressed, influential novelists such as Alan Hollinghurst, Michael Ondaatje, and Kazuo Ishiguro all looked backwards to 1945, registering an unfulfilled nostalgia for a Britain that never was, as well as the need to come to terms with welfare’s decaying remains. Their works index welfare’s limitations, situating Britain’s domestic policies within longer trajectories of colonial, racist, and homophobic violence. Taken together, the authors of my dissertation offer a new literary history of the Second World War, challenging not only the longstanding mythology of the “People’s War,” but also, more urgently, the fragile beginnings of a “People’s Peace.”

In particular, these novels metonymize welfare through their engagement with the built environment, owing to postwar reconstruction’s radical revisions of the home, as well as to the novel’s shared interest in private life. These works invent quasi-administrated home spaces—whether ill-fitting apartments, girls’ hostels, libraries, prisons, hospitals, or schools—to reveal the intimate social effects that follow when infrastructures of collective living displace older structures of private life. In doing so, their novels deploy the welfare state’s fantasy of repair, but they also challenge its logic, inventing untenable living spaces only available in the zone of literature. Instead of the equitable, coherent social citizenry as imagined by the welfare state, these novels introduce us to the debris of its reconstruction: discarded blueprints, semi-inhabitable home spaces, and persistent markers of social inequality that resist grand fantasies of state repair.

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