The Science of Character. Human Objecthood and the Ends of Victorian Realism

This project expanded on recent works in literary studies, science history, and post-humanist theory to challenge the longtime association of literary character with subjectivity, agency, and the self. Through readings of scientifically influenced novels by George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Olive Schreiner, and various other New Realist authors of the 1880s and 1890s, The Science of Character constitutes, within the world of late Victorian fiction, a conception of character as an impersonal material substrate—a substrate that is distinct from subjectivity. In these works, as it is no longer a special property of the human, ‘character’ becomes a vehicle for an exploration of the similarities between humans, nonhuman animals, and things.

The individual parts of the study tell a new story of the relationship between literature and scientific epistemology, illustrating the ways in which realist authors make use of narrative form to gain new insights into character and its functionalities in both fiction and reality. The first part discusses the problem of the materiality of character; the second part discusses the problem of agency, or the question to which extent one is able to transform one’s character; and the third part finally examines the problem of heredity and the development of characters across generations. By taking into account the German-language scientific and philosophical sources that influenced these writers in their thinking (Weismann, Helmholtz, Schopenhauer) as well as by including the long history of character from antiquity to modernity (Theophrastus, Galton, Mill), The Science of Character broadens the horizon of previous studies in Victorian literature and science by looking beyond their longtime focus on English biologists such as Darwin. As can be seen, it was rather the convergence of German natural philosophy with British materialism that marked the beginning of a ‘New Realism’ during the late Victorian period: a ‘science of character’ that investigates the dynamic material processes of character formation.

Research Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation 2020–2021
Head researcher(s): S. Pearl Brilmyer


S. Pearl Brilmyer

  • The Science of Character: Human Objecthood and the Ends of Victorian Realism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (forthcoming 2021)