Electronic Theses and Dissertations

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Ph.D. in English



First Advisor

Ian Whittington

Second Advisor

Leigh Anne Duck

Third Advisor

Susan Grayzel

Relational Format



The period after World War II saw the emergence of a new discourse of human rights, with the signing of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the postwar period and throughout the twentieth century, human rights would often be vieas a set of self-evident, monolithic, and timeless values that had merely reached their full realization after the horrors of the war. This study examines a body of literature from the 1930s and 40s, the wartime moment just before the foundation of the twentieth century universal rights ideology, to explore the process by which theories of human rights are formed from among a multiplicity of possible human rights philosophies. The texts in this study - from the work of wartime journalists Rebecca West and Martha Gellhorn, to the anti-fascist spy novels of Eric Ambler, and the writing of communist dissidents like Arthur Koestler – respond to the rise of fascism and totalitarianism and the mass displacements and genocide that occur as a consequence. These writers create narratives to understand and contend with the historical ruptures of their time. These narratives theorize human rights by providing differing answers to the underlying questions of those rights, including the ultimate authorities in which rights are grounded and the ideal kinds of community for nurturing rights. Using the strategies of narrative and fiction to create compelling visions of the proper shape of human society, these authors variously defend rights based in the nation-state or a universal worldview. Creating rather than inheriting human rights ideals, these texts from the dawn of the era of human rights reveal the ways in which human rights are always historically situated, always imagined and negotiated, rather than being eternal truths that need only to be revealed.



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