Character Drives: Vitality and the Victorian Novel
Literary historians have long aligned the emergence of the English novel with the rise of individualism in Europe. As scholars argue, with its focus on the action of a self-making protagonist, the 19th-century novel validated liberal theories of the subject as a self-sovereign agent. “Character Drives” challenges this narrative of the novel’s development, arguing that some of England’s most influential novelists rejected the ethos of upward mobility and selffashioning long associated with the genre. In works left out of the Victorian literary canon, I argue, major British novelists like George Eliot and Thomas Hardy turned away from plot as the expression of protagonistic desire, looking instead to genres which foregrounded “character.” Rather than emphasizing the potential of subjects to “create themselves,” these authors stressed the dependence of “character” on the dynamism of the body and its material drives. These experimental Victorian writers were engaged with a scientific movement called “vitalism” a natural philosophy defining life in terms of “vital forces” beyond human control.
As I argue, vitalism saw a major resurgence in England after the publication of Darwin’s infamous On the Origin of Species (1859), a text which induced panic about the biological forces attenuating human agency. Theories of vital force, however, had already begun to converge with Victorian counter-discourses to liberalism through the reception of “philosopher of the will” Arthur Schopenhauer (a student of vitalist scientist Johann Blumenbach) in England. Chapter One of my dissertation, “On the Relationship of Force to Form: Schopenhauer and Literary England” tracks the popularization of Schopenhauer’s vitalist-inflected theory of the will through the publication of an article in the Westminster Review by English dramatist John Oxenford while novelist George Eliot was serving as editor. As I argue, Schopenhauer’s theory of the will facilitated connections between 18th-century German vitalism and 19th-century British aesthetics, informing debates about authorial intention and design amongst Victorian novelists like Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, Walter Pater and Olive Schreiner.
This historical chapter is complimented by two case studies which link vitalism to the representation of character in the British novel (Eliot’s Impressions of Theophrastus Such  and Hardy’s The Well-Beloved ). Chapter Two, “Character Density: George Eliot’s Technologies of Description,” is closely aligned with the aims of the MPIWG research group, “The History of Scientific Observation.” While scholars have long remarked the pervasiveness of instruments of observation in Eliot’s fiction, in this chapter, I consider the relationship of the development of scientific technologies of observation to Eliot’s own descriptive tactics. In her long-ignored final work of fiction, Impressions of Theophrastus Such (1879), I show, Eliot defines her unique mode of character description in terms of a heightened consciousness about the limits of the individual observer and his capacity to describe “deep” psychic phenomena. This epistemologically modest model of literary description, I argue, calls into question the enduring humanism of our discipline’s attachment to characters as people. According to Eliot, the vitality of characters lies not in their “psychological depth,” but in the author’s proliferation of surface details about their behaviors and appearances. “Character Drives” argues that the English novel developed out of sustained contests over the nature of the will, rather than on a one-way path to liberal individualism. Long overlooked due to their sustained engagement with the sciences, the literary texts I analyze change our perception about the role that human agents—figured as characters—played in the rise of the novel as a literary genre. In these works, I argue the human appears, not as a self-sovereign or heroic individual, but instead, to quote Victorian vitalist, Walter Pater, as a temporary “concurrence, renewed moment to moment, of forces soon parting on their ways.”