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

This project engages recent work in post-humanist theory, character studies, and science studies to challenge the longtime association of literary character with subjectivity, agency, and the self. Through readings of scientifically engaged novels by George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Olive Schreiner, and various New Realists of the 1880s and ’90s, The Science of Character discovers, within the world of late Victorian fiction, a conception of character as an impersonal material substrate distinct from subjectivity. In these works, character, far from a special property of the human, becomes a vehicle for an exploration of what humans have in common with nonhuman animals and things.

The book’s three parts tell a new story about the relationship between literature and scientific epistemology, showing how realist authors use narrative form to cultivate new insights into character as it operates in fiction and in reality. They analyze, in turn, the problem of the materiality of character (Part I); the problem of agency, or the extent to which one can transform one’s character (Part II); and the problem of heredity, or how character evolves across generations (Part III). Working closely with the German scientific and philosophical sources that infused these writers’ thinking (Weismann, Helmholtz, Schopenhauer) and engaging the longer history of character from the ancient to the modern world (Theophrastus, Galton, Mill), The Science of Character broadens the purview of studies in Victorian literature and science beyond their longtime focus on English biologists like Darwin, to argue that it was the convergence of German natural philosophy and British materialist science that catalyzed a “New Realism” in the late Victorian period: a “science of character” that investigates the dynamic material processes through which character forms.

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