Science and the Literary Imagination, 1830-1900

Winter 2011-2012

21916 / 41916

Benjamin Morgan

This course focuses on how Victorian writers explore scientific concepts in fiction and poetry. We will interpret “science” broadly to include major developments such as theories of evolution and heredity in biology and the atomic theory in physics, as well as branches of research that are now either discredited or entirely transformed: phrenology, physiognomy, degeneration, biogenetic recapitulation, atavism, mesmerism, moral management, sexology, and hysteria. Our aim will be to examine the role of literature in its relations with science: What possibilities for imagining the implications of scientific theories do literary works offer that may be unavailable in nonfiction prose? Beyond addressing science thematically, how does literature respond formally, for example reimagining structures such as “character” or genres such as the bildungsroman in light of biological and psychological explanations of how humans think, reason, and develop? As we explore these questions within a particular historical context, we will consider how recent critics have offered theoretical justifications for and modes of relating science and literature. Authors may include Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, R.L. Stevenson, H.G. Wells, Charles Kingsley, Alfred Tennyson, A.C. Swinburne, Samuel Butler, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Edward Abbot, and John Davidson.