Fragile Subjects: Childhood in Finnish Literature and Medicine, 1850s–2000s
​Project meeting in October 2013. From left Kati Launis, Kirsi Tuohela, Jutta Ahlbeck and Päivi Lappalainen
​Funded by the Academy of Finland
Principal investigator: Prof. Päivi Lappalainen, Dept. of Finnish Literature, University of Turku
Duration of project: 1.9.2012–31.8.2016
Nineteenth-century representations of childhood are critical for understanding modernity. Whilst certain aspects of modernity, such as city life and consumer culture, and figures such as the flaneur, the dandy and the prostitute, all are well-known and largely discussed signifiers of modern life in cultural and literary studies, the figure of the child remains unexplored. Childhood is, however, a crucial aspect of modern life. This project aims to clarify and analyze this dismissed aspect of modernity.
The research project Fragile Subjects: Childhood in Finnish Literature and Medicine, examines the cultural and intellectual, as well as the literary and medical history of childhood in Finland from the early stages of this new nation – the grand duchy of Russia – to the full nation state of the 21st century. By investigating both literary and medical narratives within Finnish culture, the project traces the particular norms and ideals of childhood. In so doing, it approaches the discursive meanings mainly through portraits of deviant, troubled, sick, and invalid children, or in other words, child figures that are constructed as abnormal in one way or another.


Finnish society, as in other European countries, turned to romantic and sentimental notions of childhood, but the process was not straightforward or without contradictions. Changing practices organized around children and childhood, such as schooling, legislation, health care and other care taking systems, influenced, produced, and reflected the cultural notions of childhood. Fragile Subjects asks in what ways the idea of childhood was constructed in literature and fiction, but also how the idea of human interiority, of the self, was narrated in relation to the idea of childhood in Finnish autobiographies. Another aspect lies in the intensified scientific attention towards children and the need to govern – often by medicating – disorderly or unruly children. The project investigates what kind of consequences the rise of new scientific disciplines, most notably child psychiatry, had on notions of the child. How were children portrayed in fiction and science?


 Päivi Lappalainen discusses in her own sub project, the connection between illness, girlhood and agency in Finnish girls' novels.
Jutta Ahlbeck investigates the idea of childhood by exploring the rise of a new discipline specializing in children’s mental health problems, namely child psychiatry.
Kati Launis discusses in her sub project representations of childhood in Finnish literature from the 1850s to 1910s
Kirsi Tuohela investigates the idea of childhood in connection to the modern notion of the self. She asks how childhood is portrayed in autobiographies and illness/madness narratives.