Ph.D. Prospectus -- Sample 1

"The Art of Slashing": Victorian Representations of Corporal Punishment

The rod. The cane. The birch. The ground-ash. The ruler. The pointer. Whatever it was called, however it was formed, whether it was literally or only symbolically present, the instrument of discipline was likely to loom large in a Victorian schoolroom, and thus in the many different kinds of Victorian writing about the process of maturation.

The issue would be worth combing from the tangle of Victorian discourse if only because so many Victorian writers felt compelled to express themselves on the subject. We can observe that Matthew Arnold recasts the problem of corporal punishment as the problem of Philistinism; we can marvel that in his autobiography, John Stuart Mill (of all people) wrote, "I do not believe that fear, as an element in education, can be dispensed with"; we can note that in Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë surrounds Helen Burns's caning with images of martyrdom. Dickens, Eliot, Gaskell, Ruskin, Newman, Spencer, Cobbe--they, and numbers more, contributed to the discussion of the role of corporal punishment in education with the diversity of manner and opinion so characteristic of the age.

But Victorian corporal punishment is of course interesting also to us, on its own merits. Why do we find it disturbing? Is it because we are more civilized than the Victorians? Why do we find it titillating? Is it because, post-Freud, we sense its sexual dynamics? Or, perhaps, post-Foucault, we find the topic interesting because we believe that scenes of discipline such as those in Dickens's David Copperfield reflect the disciplinary function of the bourgeois novel itself.

Any reader of Foucault, in fact, would be interested in the topic, which is essentially Foucauldian. But it is not necessarily the case that the topic demands a Foucauldian approach. My own methods tend away from the strictly genealogical. And a study of Victorian corporal punishment might well turn into a critique of Foucault, since even a brief review of the Victorian debates on the subject shows two different ways in which the version of history Foucault offers in Discipline and Punish might be revised.

First, the corporal punishment reform movement was a failed movement in an age when many other liberal reforms were overwhelmingly adopted. It is clear that so far from replacing painful, spectacular forms of bodily discipline with carceral, invisible forms of spiritual discipline, nineteenth-century national educators in Britain successfully resisted all attempts to do away with corporal punishment in the classroom, resisting, in fact, most attempts to mitigate it. It persisted especially in the public schools, where every gentleman's son could take pride (if he wished) in his own school's caning traditions and rituals. Middle-class schools (of which there were many varieties) retained caning and even birching despite periodic scandals and debates, while charity and pauper schools, on the other hand, were subject to far greater restrictions. Foucault's assessment of the thoroughgoing, irresistible power of surveillant institutionalized modernity might thus be qualified. Spectacular forms of bodily punishment were in fact crucial in creating the middle-class and upper-class subject.

These spectacular forms persisted, moreover, for reasons not fully comprehended in Discipline and Punish. One of the chief reasons behind this persistence of corporal punishment in schools and in novels, I want to argue, was that it was recognized as a trope (oddly enough) of gender equality. That girls were regularly punished corporally in schools was a constant reminder that Victorian ideals of chivalry were full of ideological holes. Charlotte Brontė, despite her impassioned descriptions of Jane Eyre's rebellions against Lowood discipline, maintains in both The Professor and Villette that girls are just as naughty as boys and deserve to be punished just as frequently--an odd but surely just claim of gender equality. Similarly, Mrs. Westlake, member of the London School Board, argued in 1877 against abolishing corporal punishment for girls on the grounds that "standing for hours on a form or with the hands raised above the head is torture and much more cruel than the one cut on the hand which is the punishment usually inflicted in Board schools." Victorian ideals of chivalry are thus here rejected, and bodily control figured as worse torture than bodily injuries. The absence of a fully feminist approach in Discipline and Punish, then, might well be said to have impaired Foucault's understanding of the dynamics of discipline in the era. Scholars of gender, for these and other reasons, thus have a clear interest in narratives of corporal punishment. "[We regularly punish those who fail to do their gender right," writes Judith Butler, and goes on to assert that "because gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender create the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all" (140). Certainly, corporal punishment in the Victorian schoolroom can often be seen as a punishment for making mistakes in "doing gender." Interestingly, however, it also figures, perhaps even more strongly, as one of those "various acts of gender," as an opportunity to redeem and reassert gender identity--indeed, to reassert the very concept of identity itself. To give a common example: a boy beaten for "ungentlemanly" behavior takes his punishment "like a man," and is therewith forgiven. Gender is thus produced in the very moment of gender discipline, and the repeated reenactment of that ritual (as Butler also notes) is necessary to reinforce gender normativity. For girls the process might be more complicated: they too might have the option to take their punishment "like a man." Victorian uneasiness about this subversive messages in the disciplinary ritual of caning might be the reason that the scene is so often played out fictively; the scene might embody a worrisome ideological contradiction that the fictions attempt to resolve. In any case, that scene of punishment was crucial to Victorian narratives of self-development--gender of course forming a large part of the Victorian self (or indeed any self that I can imagine, Victorian or otherwise). When I say "narrative," I mean nonfictional as well as fictional narratives; I make little (though a little) distinction between the Bildungsroman and the Bildungsroman's half sisters, biography and autobiography. All the texts I will discuss, then, are miscegenants of a sort: I plan to write a chapter on David Copperfield; a chapter on Jane Eyre; a chapter on autobiographies, chiefly John Stuart Mill's and Frances Power Cobbe's; and a chapter on narratives of sexualized corporal punishment, in which I will discuss the 1869 Flagellation and the Flagellants as well as the late-Victorian pornographic Bildungsroman My Secret Life.

In writing the dissertation I will have two main aims: simply to tell the history of the Victorian debates on corporal punishment; and, more importantly, to analyze the function of the scene of corporal punishment in narratives of self-development, fictional, non-fictional, and indeterminate. My plan is to devote each chapter to one or two main texts, first closely examining the language and structure in order to determine how the scene functions in the narrative of a particular work, then measuring the extent to which that textual narrative echoes public, general, cultural narratives of corporal punishment. The work as a whole will always be interested in questions concerning narrative and power: Are we ineluctably trapped in power relations? Does narrative enforce these power relations or suggest means of escape? Do some narratives discipline, while others free? If so, which ones do which?


1. Gillian Avery, The Best Type of Girl: A History of Girls' Independent Schools (London: Andre Deutsch, 1991).
Despite the slightly precious tone, this history of girls' schools in Britain and British colonies is an useful and well-documented resource. Avery gives examples, for instance, that support the important point that the usual methods of punishment for middle-class girls were those which humiliated rather than hurt--though corporal punishment was by no means unheard-of: "though it is not recorded at any other clergy school [for girls], birching seems to have taken place at Casterton, where trouble-makers were also imprisoned in a 'cage' under the stairs. . . . Long after the handcuffs and the red tongue had been abandoned, the practice of publicly shaming culprits was standard" (297). This and other tidbits detailing the multiplicitous forms discipline assumed in the Victorian period are interesting sidelights illuminating scenes from the Lowood episodes in Jane Eyre. Since I do not intend to examine school archives myself, secondary summaries such as this will have to serve as authorities on how things were in Victorian and pre-Victorian schools.

2. Richard Brodhead, "Sparing the Rod: Discipline and Fiction in Antebellum America," Representations 21 (1988): 67-96.
Brodhead's article is a necessary starting point for anyone interested in literary representations of corporal punishment. Brodhead explicitly rejects the notion that all representations of corporal punishment in antebellum America have slavery as their ultimate referent; implicitly, he also rejects a simply Freudian reading of this interest in the scene of discipline, though he occasionally gives delicate taps with the Freudian hammer. His reading, rather, is Foucauldian, although he slightly revises Foucault's ideas in regard to the texts he discusses by Dana, Hawthorne, Poe, Warner, and Stowe. In Foucault's reading, nineteenth-century discourse would have us believe that old forms of authority have been replaced by more civilized and human forms of interaction, while authority has instead become omnipresent, invisible, decentralized. Brodhead, by contrast, asserts that this new modern authority depends upon assuming an all-too-human (maternal) face. In support of this claim, Brodhead outlines the novel's "disciplinary intimacy," which "reveals itself as a strategy not, finally, for the humanization of authority but rather for a superior introjection of authority with humanization's aid" (72). Certain points minor to Brodhead will prove important to my project: for instance, his passing reference to "the perfect asymmetry of power expressed in the whipping scenario" seems to me to need revision (68).

3. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (NY: Routledge, 1990).
Butler's term "performativity" has become a useful shorthand for the ideas that gender is 1) not natural but artificial, and 2) feeble enough, as a construct, that it requires daily feeding and pampering to keep it alive. Butler writes that "The possibilities of gender transformation are to be found . . . in the possibility of a failure to repeat, a de-formity, or a parodic repetition" of stylized "acts of gender"; for Butler, drag is exactly such a "parodic repetition," one that parodies "the very notion of an original [gender identity]" (141, 138). Another such "parodic repetition" might be found in pornographic representations of flagellation; specifically, in the pornographic Bildungsroman My Secret Life. The scenes of flagellation in this work seem transgressive not only because they depict an eccentric form of sexuality, but also because they parody a crucial scene of Victorian Bildung.

4. Phillip Collins, Dickens and Education (London: Macmillan, 1963).
A thorough study of Dickens's various relations to schools, educators, and principles of education, especially useful in recounting Dickens's own experiences with educational establishments in his various roles as pupil, father, and quasi-inspector. The aim of the work seems to be to assess the extent of Dickens's influence on Victorian social practice; Collins ultimately remains cagey on the question, at once asserting that Dickens did not and did cause educational change in Britain: "If one cannot show exactly what immediate influence he had, it nevertheless seems reasonable to assert that he helped to create the ambience within which these changes, in legislation and in spirit, could take place" (221). Collins clearly wants to ascribe the power to alter society to Dickens, but can't quite claim it in the face of all the evidence to the contrary he here details, including the facts that Dickens's ideas were not original with him, nor (more importantly) did educational legislation follow hard upon his most urgent reformist works. Collins's modestly qualified suggestions that Dickens "helped" to create something so nebulous as an "ambience" contrast interestingly with Foucauldian notions that Dickens's works are among the most stringent of cultural forces in their ability to shape the bourgeois liberal individual.

5. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 2nd ed., trans. Alan Sheridan (NY: Random House, 1995).
This major work argues that strategies of power from the 18th century on have become increasingly decentered, increasingly invisible; that carceral forms of punishment have replaced spectacular forms of punishment not because of the increasing humanitarianism of civilization, but because of the increasing efficiency of strategies of power. Power now seems to be ubiquitous, random, omnipotent, rendering all subjects potentially culpable and perpetually under surveillance. This kind of constant secret disciplining of the very soul of the subject stands in sharp contrast to public forms of punishment in which, however briefly, the state could take on the qualities of the criminal (causing pain, reenacting the crime) and the criminal could take on the qualities of the hero (evincing bravery) or the penitent (exhibiting remorse). Foucault works from the conviction that there are no discourses outside of power relations. It will be interesting, in light of Foucault's discussion of the strategies of power, to consider why the scene of corporal punishment lingers in Victorian fiction. Do works like David Copperfield set up figures like the wicked schoolmaster Mr. Creakle in order to demonstrate the inefficiency of the earlier corporal model? It will be further interesting to test Foucault's ideas against Victorian public discourse on corporal punishment--to what extent were pragmatic concerns foregrounded, to what extent humanitarian? What grounds were given in the debate? What strategies of resistance did this discourse enable? What strategies of compliance did it enable?

6. Susan Fraiman, Unbecoming Women: British Women Writers and the Novel of Development (NY: Columbia UP, 1993).
Fraiman names the traditional narrative of development "the single, surging story line": it is not a model women find easy to follow (x). Yet Fraiman does not dismiss this story line's power: "The improbability of the Bildung plot," she writes, "may even serve to heighten its appeal, for the heroine and for female writers and readers alike" (x). What if the (masculine) Bildung plot were not only improbable, but painful? And what if, despite this pain, women continued to be attracted to it--for its very difficulty? Such might well be the case. Caning in the schoolroom may seem to us to be a barbarism, or we may say it seems so: to the Victorians, caning was intimately connected with both class and gender privilege, and more especially with the education of upper-class men. To oppose it wholeheartedly, then, was difficult both for middle-class men and women alike; caning as a ritual seemed to represent a kind of opportunity for power, to signal that gentlemen were made, not born. Like Fraiman, I see Victorian women writers as both attracted to and uncomfortable with male narratives of development. This is particularly true in the case of Charlotte Brontë, who at times seems almost envious of the masculine privilege of being caned--not to mention of caning.

7. Janet Gezari, Charlotte Brontë and Defensive Conduct: The Author and the Body at Risk (Philadelphia, PA: U of Pennsylvania P, 1997).
Although the usefulness of reifying the term "defensiveness" is not entirely clear to me, Gezari here gives linguistically sensitive readings of all of Brontė's major works, linking them in each case to recurrent bodily metaphors (the eye and Jane Eyre, the stomach and Shirley, etc.). Gezari's chapters on Villette, less concerned with specific anatomical themes than other chapters, considers that work in relation to the Foucauldian themes of surveillance and discipline; moreover, it recognizes the relationship of these themes to the Butlerian theme of performance, arguing that "the event to which the novel recurs is the examination itself, an institutionally regulated activity performed by teachers, doctors, and priests, and, of course, by Lucy herself." By framing Lucy as performer and artist as well as "Examiner," Gezari frames Lucy as both subject to and complicit with modern forms of surveillant discipline. This is an important insight. I plan to explore this at length, giving greater attention than Gezari does to two aspects of the work: first, the ways in which Lucy as narrator explores her own complicity with disciplinary institutions, and second, Villette's relation to Victorian texts concerning women as authority figures in the schoolroom.

8. Donald E. Hall, "Body Fluid Desire: My Secret Life," Nineteenth-Century Prose 26 (1999): 118-140.
My Secret Life, Hall argues, emphasizes semen in such a way as to deconstruct both the binary "solid/fluid" and the binary "masculine/feminine"; it "suggests the possibility of a viscous subjectivity," he writes. Hall argues that the purely Freudian reading Stephen Marcus gives My Secret Life is inadequate, as is (ultimately) the Marxist reading given to the text by Stephen Heath. Hall's own approach is deconstructive--with a pinch of cultural studies. This article may stand as one example of criticism that seeks to read the pornographic as properly political; Hall, though fully aware of My Secret Life's disturbing qualities, claims that it is in some ways exemplary--in, for instance, its refusal to accept culturally prescribed binaries. I take some pleasure in Hall's writing and in his critical approach, even in his conclusion--yet I am slightly bemused by this and other criticism celebrating the pornographic, however sapiently.

9. Patricia Hollis, Ladies Elect: Women in English Local Government 1865-1914 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987).
This well-researched and well-constructed work is useful for me because it gives a detailed history of the London School Board. Hollis gives real personality to the women who served on this body, recounting, for example, the many clashes between the radical Harriet Taylor (stepdaughter of John Stuart Mill) and the more conservative Mrs. Westlake. Corporal punishment was one of the issues they divided on, and Hollis's accounts of the political maneuverings behind these debates shows that there was a great deal at stake in the discussions. Hollis also theorizes, interestingly, that because Taylor alienated many of the moderate liberals on the LSB, "her" issues were automatically discounted. When Taylor's term of service was over, sweeter-mannered Annie Besant was able to push through many of the same measures Taylor had worked for.

10. James R. Kincaid, Annoying the Victorians (NY and London: Routledge, 1995).
Is this work serious enough to cite? I hope so. Kincaid, who is also the editor of the most recent edition of My Secret Life, practices a criticism that is performance-oriented; he renders outrageous readings of canonical texts chiefly in order to expose the weaknesses of literary-critical methods. In perhaps the most drastically funny chapter, for instance, Kincaid "proves" that the poems of the Victorian pornographic journal The Pearl are not only good poems, but "canonical" poems, using such warrrants as their "universality," their "metaphoric deftness," and "what Harold Bloom would say" (155-63). More serious (but not much more) is his reading of Jude the Obscure, and the brief scenes of spanking it contains; central to this reading is his assertion that these scenes are eroticized--not only by Hardy, not only by repressed or perverted "other" Victorian readers, but also by those readers called "us." This is a claim to be seriously considered. Also important is his argument concerning the gendered differences in the representation and function of these scenes: "we position ourselves as voyeurs with Sue and as sadists with Jude, girl-watchers and boy-beaters" (235). This point, clearly influenced by the ideas of John Berger and Laura Mulvey, needs consideration. I have it in mind, in particular, to compare the scenes of schoolroom discipline in Jane Eyre and David Copperfield, a comparison which may or may not validate the gendering of spectacle in this way.

11. Steven Marcus, The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England. (NY: Basic Books, 1966).
Marcus's discussion of My Secret Life is chiefly concerned to account for the psychological structures surrounding the production and consumption of flagellant pornography. Marcus seems shocked by My Secret's Life blasphemous realism more than by its sexual content, and for that reason, I think, stresses that all pornography must be the most fictional form of fiction possible. I would say, rather, that the divergence of the work's story (pornographic adventures) from its discourse (strict Victorian mimetic realism, in the shape of a Bildungsroman) is such as to produce an effect of parody. My Secret Life is best read not as the product of a perverse mind, as Marcus, following Freud too closely, would have us believe; but rather as both the product and parody of earlier works. The flagellation scenes in My Secret Life refer specifically to schoolroom flogging scenes in mid-Victorian novels and autobiographies concerned with moral development; such scenes can thus be seen as a particularly extreme example of the ways in which discourses shift to allow resistant aims.

12. D. A. Miller, The Novel and the Police (Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 1988).
The reading of David Copperfield here found explores the theme of masochism (as well as that of homoeroticism) in middle-class Bildung, which will certainly figure in my project. Miller sees David as the ultimate liberal subject, who has fully internalized the norms imposed by novels and other authoritarian bodies: "David Copperfield everywhere intimates a dreary pattern in which the subject constitutes himself 'against' discipline by assuming that discipline in his own name" (220). In such a reading, David's early beatings by Mr. Murdstone and Mr. Creakle are transvested but not transformed by David when the elevated ending of the novel comes to pass, although parallels between Mr. Murdstone / Mr. Creakle and the grown-up David (Mr. Copperfield at last, perhaps) "can hardly be broadcast in the novel, which requires the functioning of the difference to structure its own plot" (220). Placing such a reading in the context of nineteenth-century debates on corporal punishment in schools and homes should prove interesting; such materials as I have read so far indicate that much Victorian discourse is even more explicit than David Copperfield in its assertion that power is transferred as well as wielded by the application of the cane, totemically.

13. Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, eds. Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen (1975; NY and Oxford: Oxford UP, 1985) 803-16.
Mulvey herself has, of course, long since qualified and expanded the views in this early essay, as have such critics as Mary Ann Doane, Teresa de Lauretis, and Judith Butler. But this essay can here serve to represent the body of writing on the spectator and spectacle, terms which have been best explored in feminist film criticism. This essay speculates, in sum, that in a filmic patriarchy masculine spectatorship might be called sadistic, while feminine spectatorship might be called masochistic; Hitchcock's films, in particular, dissect the female body in disturbing ways. Such speculations might have analogues for textual "scenes" of corporal punishment: are the readers of such scenes trapped in a sadomasochistic economy of reading? A more answerable question: are the spectators of punishment represented in such scenes troped as sadomasochistic? In other words, how do the texts themselves figure spectacle and spectatorship?

14. Peter Newell, A Last Resort? Corporal Punishment in Schools (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972).
This is a treatise lobbying for the abolition of corporal punishment in British schools, published under the auspices of the Society of Teachers Opposed to Physical Punishment (STOPP). Its editor makes clear that it is "unrepentantly an abolitionist book"; nevertheless (therefore?) its case-studies and anecdotes point me toward many potentially useful sources of material. (Interestingly, corporal punishment passages from both Jane Eyre and David Copperfield serve as epigraphs to chapters.) The first chapter, "The Move Towards Abolition," is especially useful, since it sketches a concise history of British resistance to corporal punishment in the schools--including pieces of legislation introduced to Parliament, procedures adopted by the London School Board and its policy-making successors, and an account of the "Schoolchildren's Strike" of 1889.

15. Mary Poovey, Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988).
Although Poovey has since expressed doubts about her understanding of the term "ideology" as it appears in this work, her piece on the governess and the "governess novel" remains a model for one aspect of my project. Partly to counteract what might well be a temptation (my temptation) to see the caning scenario in strictly psychological terms, it will be useful to study some Victorian debates on corporal punishment. Poovey points out that the Victorian governess was considered a problem to be solved--the "plight" of the governess was much discussed in the 1840s--and contends that governesses were not so much in trouble as were Victorian ideas about womanhood: governesses were middle- and upper-women class women who worked--an insupportable paradox, since middle- and upper-class women by definition were ladies of leisure. Novels in the style of Jane Eyre often functioned in the same manner as the Victorian charities aimed at helping governesses, Poovey argues: to contain that contradiction, that paradox, in order to maintain the hegemony of the dominant class and gender ideologies. (D. A. Miller, by contrast, argues that dominant ideology propagates itself through contradiction, and ultimately sees Victorian novels as instruments of ideological discipline.) Jane Eyre itself Poovey reads as a "border case," less apt than other, shorter-lived governess novels to offer comfortable solutions to the ideological contradiction represented by the governess.