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Dickens and Darwin

  • Author(s): Perera, Nirshan
  • Advisor(s): Jordan, John O
  • et al.
Abstract

This dissertation examines how Charles Dickens’s last completed novels, which appeared after the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859), process Victorian anxieties about evolutionary origins and connections. I argue that Dickens’s thematic work with origins and identity—specifically in Great Expectations (1860-61) and Our Mutual Friend (1864–65)—ultimately transcends the epistemological dislocations of Darwinism through an affirmation of self–determination and development over biological determination and origins. I examine how this is registered most powerfully in the novels’ emphasis on the liberatory and redemptive nature of self-narration and narrative fantasy. Furthermore, I read this aesthetic assertion as Dickens’s developing response to Darwinian evolutionary theory and a bridge between the social commentary of his last two completed novels. This aesthetic counterpositioning demonstrates how Dickens’s engagement with Darwinian science was complex and richly contradictory. I begin by summarizing and synthesizing Goldie Morgentaler’s and Anny Sadrin’s key work on issues of heredity and parentage in Dickens’s oeuvre. As Morgentaler and Sadrin have argued, Dickens’s work before 1859 primarily articulates a deterministic vision of cohesion and continuity in personal and social identity. Dickens’s treatment of self-formation, however, becomes increasingly critical of hereditary determinants and undergoes a radical unraveling in his post–Origin work. Building on Morgentaler’s and Sadrin’s work, among others, I argue that Great Expectations is ultimately unable to harmonize the deterministic tenets of evolutionary theory with the liberatory desires that underwrite any act of self–narration. Retrospective narration becomes a site for remaking origins and identity through the fruitful distortions of storytelling. Dickens’s next and last finished novel, Our Mutual Friend, extends and heightens this work. I present an extended reading and recontextualization of the lengthy soliloquy that bisects the book—in which the central character hijacks the narrative authority of the novel’s third–person omniscient narrator and seeks to remake himself through a conspicuous act of self–narration. The Harmon soliloquy grapples with issues of origin and predestination and privileges even more emphatically the self-germinating potential of the individual over hereditary and environmental determinants.

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