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


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.

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