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Weather ex Machina: Climatic Determinism and the Fiction of Causality in the Twentieth-Century Novel


Weather ex Machina charts a pattern of the weather as a plot device in the twentieth-century novel, where its interventions have been overlooked and understudied. According to the prevailing critical narrative of the topic, the ubiquitous and overwrought weather that characterizes the notoriously dark and stormy novels of the nineteenth century all but disappears in those of the twentieth, its determinative force in fiction diminishing with the advancement of a science that secularized the skies. This dissertation pushes against that narrative, arguing that is precisely because modern meteorology seemingly stripped the weather – so long assumed to be divinely sourced – of its mythological associations that the trope becomes available for co-opting as the makeshift deus ex machina of the modern novel: the believable contrivance that, in functioning deterministically while appearing aleatory, replaces the providentialism of the nineteenth-century novel and resolves the crisis of causality in the twentieth-century plot.

For E.M. Forster, whose works are marked by an anxiety about formlessness and a belabored adherence to causal chains, the weather becomes a divine scapegoat, its inculpation imposing a predictable but passably accidental order onto his plots. Virginia Woolf, in contrast, turns to the weather not as a determinant but for its apparent indeterminacy, using the cloud as an organizing trope to forestall her plots and to project a sense of nebulousness onto even her most conventionally structured narratives. In Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov’s weather becomes anachronistically over-determined, as his dramatic stagings of supposedly coincidental lightning strikes and thunderstorms illuminate the bars of Humbert’s artistic cage. While in the novels of Salman Rushdie, the heat-induced blurring of cause and effect finally amounts to an inversion of climatic determinism itself, his hyperbolically humanist texts offering us fantasies of magically determined climates that ultimately prefigure the nightmarish reality of our current anthropocenic moment.

Less a matter of physics than of metaphysics, the meteorological aberration that is literary weather not only signifies a distinctly formal problem in the twentieth-century novel, but is itself the quintessentially chaotic form that these four writers are trying to represent in the constitution of their necessarily deterministic narratives. Used as a mode of emplotment to naturalize the fiction of strict causality, the weather thus emerges as the means through which the modern author is able to reckon with an increasing ambivalence towards classical theories of plot in a world that no longer believes in traditional laws of intelligible cause and effect.

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