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This study contrasts four distinct discursive responses to (or even accidental remarks on) the Victorian concept of individual and/or social improvement, or progress, set forth by the preeminent social critics, writers, scientists, and historians of the nineteenth century, such as Thomas Carlyle, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Macaulay Matthew Arnold, Charles Darwin, and Herbert Spencer. This teleological ideal, perhaps the most prevalent ideology of the long nineteenth century, originates with the Protestant Christian ethic during and in the years following the Reformation, whereupon it combines with the Enlightenment notions of rational humanity’s boundless potential and Romanticism’s fierce individualism to create the Victorian doctrine of progress. My contention remains throughout that four nineteenth-century writers for children and adults subvert the doctrine of individual progress (which contributes to the progress of the race) by chipping away at its metaphysical and narratalogical roots. George MacDonald allows progress only on the condition of total selflessness, including the complete dissolution of one’s free will, but defers the hallmarks of making progress indefinitely, due to his apocalyptic Christian vision. Lewis Carroll ridicules the notion of progress by playing with our conceptions of linear time and simple causality, implying as he writes that perhaps there is nothing to progress toward, no actual telos on which to fix our sights. Oscar Wilde characterizes moral development as nothing short of self-inflicted cruelty, consigning his most scrupulously moral-minded characters to social subversion or untimely death (the dark reflection of MacDonald’s compulsory selflessness). And finally, Rudyard Kipling toys with historical substitutes for conventional progress, such as repetitive cycles, deviating from historical unidirectionality and linear development. He often realigns his characters with their intractable fates at the conclusions of his narratives, echoing Carroll’s suggestion that perhaps our goals are delusional. I conclude that while each individual author fails to holistically undermine the doctrine of progress, taken collectively, these four fantasists represent a heretofore unexamined repudiation of the Victorian era’s most enduring metaphysical conceits.
This is one of the paradoxes of minimalism. You think that the less you say, the less elaboration you permit yourself, the more discrete (and conceptual) you make it, the less is relinquished. But it isn’t.