04 June 2014

Review: Darwin and the Novelists by George Levine

Hardcover, 319 pages
Published 1988
Borrowed from my advisor
Read December 2012
Darwin and the Novelists: Patterns of Science in Victorian Fiction
by George Levine

Levine is my academic grandfather-- that is to say, he was my dissertation director's dissertation director. But he also is one of the critics responsible (the others are Gillian Beer and Sally Shuttleworth) for creating the subfield of Victorian literature and science back in the 1980s, and so I owe him a lot. Like Beer, Levine mentions Darwin in his title, but he's less interested in evolutionary patterns than her: Darwin and the Novelists focuses more on the task of science, on science as a way of thinking and interacting with the world.

For example, his discussion of Austen's Mansfield Park argues that Fanny enacts a pre-Darwinian ideal of scientific observation: "Austen's heroines learn to see clearly by curbing their desires, and by so doing they can then see those desires more clearly" (62). As he points out, there's some hypocrisy in this approach, which is perhaps easier to see in the context of novel than in science itself. Darwin, though, did not believe in this disinterested approach: "Darwin complained about the view that geologists should observe and not theorize. 'How odd it is,' he remarks, 'that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service'" (101).

How to carry out effective observation is the key problem of science, but it becomes even more pressing when the domain of observation is the realm of the human. This problem (I think Levine would argue and, if not, I definitely would) is tackled by the realist novel. Darwin's project (and problem) was "to transform his peculiar subject, organic life, including-- especially-- human life, into material for scientific observation and investigation. The power science exercised over nature, by virtue of its extension of knowledge, was to extend over human beings themselves.... [T]he human subject becomes equivalent to the planetary or the geological" (211). It is this attempt to extend science into the human realm that the nineteenth century sees as either so liberating or so threatening, and which novelists like Gaskell, Eliot, Collins, Hardy, Wells, Griffith, and more I'm sure attempt to grapple, both directly and indirectly. Levine's work brilliantly opens up a path for discussion that many (including myself) are still attempting to follow.

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