16th November 2013, St Hilda’s College, Oxford
‘Novels, like paintings or music or sport, should hold out to children the promise of happiness, and the certainty of laughter.’ (Fred Inglis)
Jean-Jacques Rousseau claims that children are born innocent and happy: all their educators need to do is protect this natural state of childhood from being contaminated by society. In the last few years, however, a radical reassessment of happiness has taken place in critical theory, through thinkers such as Sara Ahmed and Lauren Berlant. They point to the social construction of the idea of happiness, how it varies over history and geography, and is based on predominating social values. As such, “happiness” can work as an ideology that welcomes some kinds of lifestyles and excludes others. In particular, they emphasise the difference that gender and sexuality makes to conventional models of a “happy” life. Their resituating of happiness as a normative and often oppressive ideology brings us the opportunity to reassess the place of happiness in children’s literature.