“Nemesis without her mask”: heredity and the English novel in the nineteenth century
Christensen, Andrew Gary
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This dissertation explores the subject of heredity and its novelistic treatment c. 1850-1900. Though hereditary phenomena had long been incorporated into literary works, heredity acquired an unprecedented significance with Darwin’s theory of evolution. It became a central fact of life, generating both fascination and fear, but its exact workings remained unknown until the turn of the century. This left novelists some experimental leeway in creating fictional universes and characters in accordance with the nascent naturalistic worldview and in struggling with its philosophical implications. While work on nineteenth-century literature and science has focused significantly on evolution, I demonstrate that heredity is a more immediate human concern and is more intuitive to the form of the novel. The works considered here by George Eliot, Oscar Wilde, and Thomas Hardy grapple with an increasingly deterministic view of biology but also with other forms of inheritance, for most of the conditions that constitute and determine our lives are inherited. Chapter one discusses how the metaphor of inheritance became a powerful tool for portraying the complexities of life in a post-theological age. This dissertation is grounded in the history of science, and, beyond the common language shared between science, philosophy, and literature, I examine the role of narrative in the study of heredity, particularly in medical case histories, which formed an early point of contact with the novel. Chapter two is on Eliot’s treatment of the inextricable workings of legal, cultural, and biological inheritance in The Mill on the Floss, showing how the mismatch between theory and reality regarding these matters demoralizes the novel’s protagonists and inhibits their development. Chapter three contextualizes The Picture of Dorian Gray in the history of art and science, reading Dorian’s portrait as a device suggestive of metaphysical inheritance and the disruption of personal development, and the ancestral portraits in Dorian’s gallery as indications of the biological heredity that drives his self-destruction. Chapter four looks at Hardy’s technique of genealogical narrative and overdetermination in Tess of the d’Urbervilles and the novel’s engagement with debates over the value of pedigree and the pessimistic view of determinism at the century’s end.
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