Dangerous designs: The problem child and the evolution of plot in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English literature

Kathleen Elizabeth Urda, Fordham University


Dangerous Designs: The Problem Child and the Evolution of Plot in Seventeenth-and Eighteenth-Century English Literature, directed by Dr. Susan Greenfield, examines a change in the portrayal of the figure named in the subtitle. The term "problem child" designates an offspring outside the patrilineal succession who gains a disturbing power that is rival to and independent of any recognized authority—particularly a father's. The earliest works I consider, John Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel (1681), Thomas Otway's Venice Preserv'd (1682), and Aphra Behn's Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (1684-7) were written during the period when the Duke of Monmouth, the charismatic illegitimate son of Charles II, was vying for his father's throne and garnering dangerous popularity. Given the pervasiveness of this political struggle, it is understandable why each of the works above deploys a plot in which a character distinctly reminiscent of the Duke of Monmouth becomes prominent. Fascination with and anxiety about such problem children continue long after this political moment, however. Daniel Defoe's Roxana (1724), Samuel Richardson's Clarissa (1748-9), and Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (1749) all confront new difficulties that accompany a fictional focus on this child. Particularly in Clarissa and Tom Jones, I explore a concerted effort to retain the attractions of the problem child and to disassociate those attractions from their sinister connections to unstable plotting, both in a political and a fictional sense. Concurrent with this disassociation is an amorphous but still discernible attempt to reconstruct the problem child as a source of truth and stability for the family in the way that the father once was. Indeed, I claim that the recognition of a perceived problem child as worthy, even necessary for the family's integration and maintenance, starts to become one of the primary plots that the novel embraces. I trace some of the efforts to make this plot not only acceptable but also downright appealing.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Urda, Kathleen Elizabeth, "Dangerous designs: The problem child and the evolution of plot in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English literature" (2007). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3271278.