Narrative under the microscope: Evidentiary discourses in Victorian literature and culture, 1829--1876
Penner, Anna Louise
Doctor of Philosophy
This dissertation traces evidence of the competing epistemologies of the individual and the social through four Victorian novels and through the scientific, philosophical, and medical discourses that were emerging at the time that the novels were being written. Though the two types of epistemology are not necessarily inimical to each other, the heavily empirical and positivist climate of intellectual opinion between the years 1829--1876 fostered the notion that statistical observation was inherently superior to the study of individuals as individuals, a notion confronted by each of the studies my dissertation addresses. I describe how the discourses of medical statistics, natural history, physiology, and psychology inflected the narrative structures and styles of the industrial novel, sensation fiction, the high realist novel, debates about public health, and writings about the sciences themselves during a period of considerable scientific change, the years 1829--1876. The epistemological tensions I locate within the scientific discourses may better explain aspects of the novels that have been previously identified as thematic incoherences or confusions of genre. All of the chapters together provide a sense of both the Victorians' investment in and suspicion about the efficacy of empiricist claims of objectivity and certainty, particularly the suggestion that the intense empirical study of aggregate populations would necessarily lead to the identification of fixed laws of nature and social behavior. As my readings of both earlier and later novels indicate, some Victorians hoped to move from observable laws to an understanding of the unobservable and unpredictable, perhaps even to provide a language for those words and behaviors that could not be plainly spoken or readily classified. This dissertation shows, however, a conflicted philosophical and scientific vision produced in each of these novels as a result of their dual focus on individuals and aggregates, a double vision that for us brings into focus the Victorians' uncomfortable awareness of the limits of empiricist description.
History of science; English literature