Literacy and its discontents: modernist anxiety and the literacy fiction of Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, D. H. Lawrence and Aldous Huxley Institutional Repository Document uri icon


  • Literacy theory, a multi-disciplinary, late-twentieth century endeavor, examines the acts of reading and writing as cognitive and social processes, seeking to define the relationship between reading and writing and other social and cognitive - especially linguistic - acts. As such, literacy theory intersects with discussions of public and individual education and reading habits that surface with the rise of the mass reading public. This dissertation analyzes scenes of reading and writing in the fiction of Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, D. H. Lawrence and Aldous Huxley as implicit authorial discourses on the function of literacy, including properties of written language and the social consequences of literate acts. It argues that reading and writing form important thematic concerns in Modernist fiction, defines fiction that theorizes about reading and writing as "literacy fiction," and proposes fictional dramatizations of literate activity as subjects for literacy theory. Chapter I argues that early twentieth-century Britain is an important historical site for intellectual consideration of literacy because near-universal access to education across social classes influences an increase in middle and working class readers. Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway provides a test case for the analysis of scenes of reading because her democratic concern with education is well established in the scholarly literature. Chapter II argues that in "The Celestial Omnibus" and "Other Kingdom," Forster critiques use of literacy as cultural capital. Chapter III argues that Forster's A Room with a View and Howards End portray the dangers of naive reading and the difficulties of autodidacticism for the working class, respectively. Chapter IV argues that Lawrence's "Shades of Spring" and Sons and Lovers introduce the theoretically unexplored topic of literacy's influence on intimate relationships. Chapter V argues that Huxley's Brave New World responds to the Modernist discourse on literacy by addressing the restriction of individual literacy by the State and elite intellectuals. The conclusion summarizes Modernist representation of literacy, states the significance of the methodology and its further applications, and refines the definition of literacy fiction. Because Modernist writers scrutinize the relationship between external forces and the individual psyche, their anxiety-tinged portraits treat both cognitive and social functions of literate acts.

author list (cited authors)

  • DuPlessis, N. M.

complete list of authors

  • DuPlessis, Nicole Mara

publication date

  • October 2008