S. Pearl Brilmyer

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

Thinking Literature
Chicago University Press, Chicago 2022, 296 pages
ISBN 978-0-22681-578-7 (Paper); 978-0-22681-577-0 (Cloth); 978-0-22681-579-4 (PDF)

In 1843, the Victorian philosopher John Stuart Mill called for the establishment of a new science, “the science of the formation of character.” Although Mill’s proposal failed as a scientific practice, S. Pearl Brilmyer argues that it found its true home in the realist fiction of the period, which employed the literary figure of character to investigate the nature of embodied experience. By bringing to life Mill’s unrealized dream of a science of character, novelists such as George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and Olive Schreiner turned to narrative to explore the ways in which traits and behaviors in organisms emerge and develop and how aesthetic features—shapes, colors, and gestures—are given a cultural meaning through certain categories such as race and sex. By engaging with materialist science and philosophy, these authors transformed the notion of character from the liberal notion of the inner truth of an individual into a materially determined figuration that is produced as a result of shifts in the boundaries between the body’s inside and outside. In their hands, Brilmyer argues, literature became a science—not in the sense that its claims were falsifiable or even systematically articulated, but rather in its commitment to uncovering, through a fictional staging of realistic events, the laws governing physical and affective life. The Science of Character redraws late Victorian literary history to show how women and feminist novelists pushed realism to its aesthetic and philosophical limits in the crucial time span between 1870 and 1920.


“With an acute ear for the references that give metaphors their edge, [...] Brilmyer brings the soaringly evocative back to earth, giving us a new science of literary analysis.”
Audrey Jaffe, Critical Inquiry 49.2 (Winter 2023)

Media Response

01 Nov 2022
The Science of Character: Human Objecthood and the Ends of Victorian Realism

Review by Audrey Jaffe, in: Critical Inquiry 49.2 (winter 2023), 289–290