The intimate pulse of reality : sciences of description in fiction and philosophy, 1870-1920
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This dissertation tracks a series of literary interventions into scientific debates of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, showing how the realist novel generated new techniques of description in response to pressing philosophical problems about agency, materiality, and embodiment. In close conversation with developments in the sciences, writers such as George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and Olive Schreiner portrayed human agency as contiguous with rather than opposed to the pulsations of the physical world. The human, for these authors, was not a privileged or even an autonomous entity but a node in a web of interactive and co-constitutive materialities. Focused on works of English fiction published between 1870-1920, I argue that the historical convergence of a British materialist science and a vitalistic Continental natural philosophy led to the rise of a dynamic realism attentive to material forces productive of “character.” Through the literary figure of character and the novelistic practice of description, I show, turn-of-the-century realists explored what it meant to be an embodied subject, how qualities in organisms emerge and develop, and the relationship between nature and culture more broadly.