English 250

Research Seminar: Evolution and Literary Form, 1800-1900

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
4 Fall 2018 Duncan, Ian
Thurs. 3:30-6:30 180 Barrows British 19th-Century
Research Seminars
Graduate Courses


Reading the newly published On the Origin of Species together in November 1859, George Eliot and George Henry Lewes hailed Charles Darwin’s book as confirmation of the “Development Hypothesis,” founded a hundred years earlier in German embryology, extended to the evolution of life on earth by Johann Gottfried Herder, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Geoffroy Saint Hilaire, and Robert Chambers, and applied to the progress of human societies by Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer. “Development” in the broad sense furnished the dominant ideological model for Victorian thinking about natural and human history. Darwinian natural selection would pose a radical challenge to the purposive and progressive imperatives informing development, which saved humanity’s place at the center of nature and the end of history in a fully secularized cosmos. Darwin’s writings also make explicit the theory of evolution as, above all, a theory of form, in which scientific and aesthetic criteria converge. The Descent of Man (1871) proposes an independent evolutionary agency, sexual selection, which determines human history -- including human sexual and racial differentiation -- via the aesthetic discrimination of form.

We will read some major works of nineteenth-century British fiction and poetry in light of contemporary ideas of development, focusing on the two new genres – the Bildungsroman and historical novel – born in the “novelistic revolution” (Franco Moretti) of European Romanticism. The Bildungsroman synchronizes personal development with a realization of species being ("the full and harmonious development of humanity"); the historical novel triangulates the disparate scales of individual and racial progress with national history. We’ll begin with a novel written in French but swiftly naturalized into English, where it became hugely influential, Germaine de Staël’s Corinne, and with Walter Scott’s foundational historical novel Waverley; and go on to consider works by Charles Dickens (Bleak House), Alfred Tennyson (The Princess and In Memoriam A.H.H.), Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Aurora Leigh), and George Eliot (The Mill on the Floss, Daniel Deronda), alongside writings by Herder, Lamarck, Chambers, Feuerbach, Spencer, Lewes, Darwin, and some readings in contemporary philosophy and theory (from Quentin Meillassoux to Elizabeth Grosz) and in the history of science.

Course books will be ordered from University Press Books (not via the university bookstore); supplementary readings will be made available via the seminar b-Courses site.

This course satisfies the Group 4 (Nineteenth Century) requirement.

Other Recent Sections of This Course

Spring, 2019
Course & Section Course Name Course Areas
250/1 Research Seminar Altieri, Charles F.
250/2 Research Seminar Tamarkin, Elisa
Fall, 2018
Course & Section Course Name Course Areas
250/1 Research Seminar Wong, Hertha D. Sweet
250/3 Research Seminar: Textual Communities and the Modern Picciotto, Joanna M
Spring, 2018
Course & Section Course Name Course Areas
250/2 Research Seminar: Ways of Knowing, Ways of Representing in Eighteenth-Century English Fiction Sorensen, Janet
250/3 Research Seminar: Milton and the English Civil War Kahn, Victoria
250/4 Research Seminar: The Rhetoric of Technique Lavery, Grace
250/5 Research Seminar: Black Abstraction Best, Stephen M.
Fall, 2017
Course & Section Course Name Course Areas
250/1 Research Seminar: Victorian Cultural Studies Puckett, Kent
250/2 Research Seminar: How to Write a Book Kahn, Victoria
250/3 Research Seminar: Paranoid States: Empire and the Rise of the Surveillance State Saha, Poulomi
250/4 Research Seminar: Gender, Sexuality, Modernism Abel, Elizabeth
Spring, 2017
Course & Section Course Name Course Areas
250/1 Research Seminar: Wordsworth and Coleridge in Collaboration Goodman, Kevis
250/2 Research Seminar: Modernism in Poetry and in Art Altieri, Charles F.
250/3 Research Seminar: Idols and Ideology—Readings in Augustine, Milton, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Hobbes, Kant, Marx, Freud, Althusser Kahn, Victoria
Fall, 2016
Course & Section Course Name Course Areas
250/1 Research Seminar: Representing Non-Human Life in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Britain Picciotto, Joanna M
250/2 Research Seminar: Ethnic Modernisms Lee, Steven S.
250/3 Research Seminar: Literature and the Brain Gang, Joshua
Spring, 2016
Course & Section Course Name Course Areas
250/1 Research Seminar: Capitalist Crisis and Literature Gonzalez, Marcial
250/2 Research Seminar: The Limits of Historicism Best, Stephen M.
250/3 Research Seminar: How It Strikes a Contemporary: Reading the Novel in the 21st Century Snyder, Katherine
Snyder, Katie
250/4 Research Seminar: Modernism's Metaphysics Blanton, C. D.

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