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Natural Enough: Contemporary Science, Capitalist Morality, and Dickens’s Realism

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The connection between liberal economics, Victorian conservation science, and the naturalization of laissez-faire capitalism has been established by Allen MacDuffie, Ted Underwood, and Tina Young Choi among others, yet relatively little scholarship has investigated the contemporary social landscape, including how correlating capitalism to the physical sciences affected both economic value and ethical values. MacDuffie’s Victorian Literature, Energy, and the Ecological Imagination and Underwood’s “How Did the Conservation of Energy Become ‘The Highest Law in All Science’?” explore how Victorians understood conservation theory and why they were primed to accept it, respectively. However, neither delves fully into how conservation science authorized theories about capitalism, and how the convergence of these two subjects impacted culture. Thus, investigations into popular literature are needed in order to gauge popular sentiment around these topics and to elucidate how these phenomena changed the foundations of society. Realist novels are the aesthetic emanation of these changes. The popular literature of Charles Dickens offers a relatively organic account of how these phenomena were absorbed into the public consciousness.

Along with a scarcity of scholarship on how a scientifically authorized capitalism was reflected in contemporary notions of morality, there is a dearth of criticism surrounding Dickens’s early career participation in conversations about contemporary science. Indeed, since Ann Wilkinson’s “Bleak House: From Faraday to Judgment Day” (1967) and later, George Levine’s “Dickens and Darwin, Science and Narrative Form” (1986) scholarship has focused primarily on his later career, and in particular, on the teeming interconnectivity that aligns his fiction with Darwin’s theory of evolution. There is, on the other hand, relatively little scholarship on Dickens’s interest in and understanding of science prior to his mid-career, despite his having written several early texts that explicitly take up its contemporary status: Pickwick’s silliness is part and parcel with his having contributed to a scientific journal, and The Mudfog Papers and Hard Times both focus their satire on a variety of scientific fields. And, as I argue, the effects of contemporary conservation science on perceptions of capitalism as a natural phenomenon can also be seen in the logic of Martin Chuzzlewit and Dombey and Son. As Underwood shows, science became popularized, conservation theory in particular was taken up by the public, because it reflected moral ideas connected to Protestantism: waste and dissipation were anathema to a capitalistic work ethic, and when conservation science proved that it was natural to conserve energy, Victorian notions of work were affirmed.

This dissertation’s chapters collectively argue that, as science naturalized capital markets and as the government adapted its policy to accommodate the ideological force of that naturalization, that mutually reinforcing cultural and economic apparatus increasingly structures Dickens’s oeuvre. By comparing significant moments in the naturalization of industrial capitalism with developments in Dickens’s philosophy and form, we can understand how the naturalization of capitalist markets changed representations of character and of interpersonal relations. In four chapters, I explore how Dickens’s displaces his social critique of capitalist society onto the emergent institutionalization of science in The Mudfog Papers and Hard Times; then, how financial and cultural turmoil during the transition to capitalism as a social system further delayed a turn towards realism in Dickens. To explain why Dickensian realism emerged when it did, I show that Dickens’s “maturity” coincided with a convergence of scientific and economic ideas that established the reality principle animating Dombey and Son. And, I argue that mid-Victorian capitalism effected an aesthetic change associated with Dickens’s realism: characteristics coded as villainy in early Dickens become a brother or neighbor’s mere “bad faith” in later Dickens—a change that occurs as capitalism becomes the ‘natural’ way of being together in society.

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This item is under embargo until December 18, 2026.