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Work Avoidance: Idleness and Ideology in Turn-of-the-Century Utopian Fiction

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)46-61
Number of pages16
Issue number1
Early online date28 Feb 2016
Accepted/In press3 Feb 2016
E-pub ahead of print28 Feb 2016
PublishedMar 2016

King's Authors


This article explores the political stakes of idleness in a range of turn-of-the-century utopian novels, all of which engage explicitly with socialist and anarchist discourses: Paul Adam's Les Cœurs nouveaux (1896), Émile Zola's Travail (1901), and Jean Grave's Terre libre (1908). These works attend, it is argued, to the fate of idleness, and of the idler, in ways which not only bear out very different ideological agendas, but also provide a reflection on the limits of utopian idealism. By the turn of the century, an increase in leisure time had become critical to almost every effort to imagine the future trajectory of working-class emancipation. But the question of just how this abundant free time was to be employed gave rise to much anxious speculation. If calls for the individual's right to leisure were clearly bound up with ideals of edification and aesthetic and moral cultivation, which were both sanitary and salutary, these depended on the worker choosing to spend his or her time ‘well’. Whether at work or at leisure, the problem of harnessing the worker's energy to the ends of communitarian ideals is a central preoccupation of each utopian text. More than a form of individual deviance or a de Certeauian ‘tactic’, idleness proves to be a symptom of disaffection that threatens the very foundations of the utopian community, and in turn, the master-narrative of working-class redemption.

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