Human Forms: The Novel in the Age of Evolution

A major rethinking of the history of the novel as well as the cultural impact of evolutionary science before Darwin, Human Forms is the first book-length critical study of the interaction of European fiction with natural history and philosophical anthropology from the late Enlightenment through the mid-Victorian era, when the ascendancy of realism coincided with the rise of evolutionary theory. Novelists claimed human nature as the scientific basis of their art at the same time that the human species became the subject of the new natural history and an organic transmutation of forms and kinds. A supposed aesthetic disability, lack of form, now equipped the novel to model the modern scientific conception of a developmental – mutable rather than fixed – human nature. The principle of development, invoked at first as a uniquely human property, subverted the exception it was meant to save, once evolutionary science applied it to the whole of nature. The novel became the major experimental instrument for managing the new set of divisions – between nature and history, individual and species, Bildung and biological life – that replaced the ancient schism between animal body and immortal soul.

Chapters consider the rise of Enlightenment philosophical anthropology; the new Romantic genres of the Bildungsroman and the historical novel; the investment of historical romance with Lamarckian evolutionism; Charles Dickens’s transformist aesthetic and its challenge to the anthropomorphic techniques of Victorian realism; high realism, “species consciousness,” and the science-fiction turn in major novels by George Eliot.

Ian Duncan
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