"Dreaming Eyes of Wonder": Religion, Science, and Wonderment in Nineteenth-Century Children's Fiction

Elizabeth Timmer Rees, Fordham University


This dissertation project’s focus is a set of discourses describing wonder and its nature, sources, and manifestations in works of nineteenth-century English children’s literature. It represents a revision to children’s literary histories that pair wonder exclusively with fantasy, for it demonstrates persuasively that non-fantasy fiction works, particularly desert island narratives, prominently feature the theme of wonder. This project will also extend existing histories of wonder, which stop well before the nineteenth century and fail to consider child subjects. Chapter One will highlight depictions of wonder in The Family Robinson Crusoe (Wyss) and Masterman Ready (Marryat), where patriarchal authority figures attempt to control the child’s perception and contextualization of wonders in the natural world through educational discourses linking wonder to Christianity and scientific discovery. Chapter Two will focus upon The Coral Island (Ballantyne), where child characters raised on Robinsonades and travel tales are the best authorities on wonder; it explores new scientific and religious contexts for wonder, but also stages the eventual excision of wonder from the adventure genre. Chapter Three shows how wonder and Christianity drastically alter in the wake of Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution through analysis of The Water-Babies (Kingsley), and it traces the beginnings of the fantasy genre in a unique work that fuses the imaginary and real, the religion and scientific. Chapter Four traces how wonder becomes increasingly associated with the celebration of the figure of the child and less with real world contexts in fantasy works: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel (Carroll), George MacDonald’s three book-length fantasies, and Peter and Wendy (Barrie). By the century’s end, authors are replacing traditional Christianity with their own original mythologies or liberal theologies in the service of wonder, while science is rarely a source anymore. In addition, this project will explore: different representations of wonder in additional works; the relationship between gender and wonder, particularly the exclusion of girls from these discourses; the recurring Eden symbolism associated with wonder; the changing, evolving tropes of wonder; the influence of travel narratives upon depictions of wonder; and the relationship of wonderment to visual perception.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Rees, Elizabeth Timmer, ""Dreaming Eyes of Wonder": Religion, Science, and Wonderment in Nineteenth-Century Children's Fiction" (2015). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI10187277.