Ripping Yarns
: The Breaking of Masculine Codes in "Boy’s Own" Adventure Stories, 1855 - 1940

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


My thesis explores the yarn, the British masculine adventure story for boys of all ages, from 1855 until 1940. Using Raymond Williams’ concept, “structure of feeling”, the “boy’s own” ethos is examined within its material culture, strongly influenced by the public schools. The thesis follows the yarn’s mutations in popular literature from school story to maritime adventure, colonial encounter, domestic landscape fantasy, invasion scare novel and war memoir.

The study argues that, when the pedagogic system privileged the study of Classics as the professional gateway to success, the yarn constructed a valorised code of masculinity as an intellectual and moral puzzle requiring decryption. Using Rudyard Kipling’s stories about adolescent males as the chronological spine, it follows the competitive discourse of different masculine codes, Christian, imperialist and sporting, which the implied reader is encouraged to “break”. Extending Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of code as cultural competence to include crypto-analysis, the thesis examines how superficially extroverted tales remain fixated upon bookish practices of reading and interpretation, through scriptural exegesis, classical translation, and scrutiny of treasure maps, genealogies, landscapes and ciphers.

Chapter One considers the school story, and specifically its competitive examination as an overarching metaphor for masculinity; Chapter Two the maritime adventure as a hermeneutic quest where the adolescent struggles to read male behaviour; and Chapter Three the colonial encounter as an identity crisis when cultural hybridity challenges the construct of the White Man. Chapter Four explores the domestic landscape fantasy when imperialist anxiety becomes enmeshed within nostalgia for boyhood; Chapter Five the paranoia about invasion running parallel to imperial hubris; and Chapter Six thematic developments in two short stories by Kipling. Chapter Seven provides an aerial view (including the post-War cult of the airman), before the Conclusion summarizes the shifts in constructions of masculinity across my periodization.
Date of Award22 Mar 2016
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Roehampton
SupervisorLisa Sainsbury (Supervisor)

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