Social Organisms: Biology and British Fiction in the Nineteenth Century
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My argument is that the rise of biology at the start of the nineteenth challenged the individualism of the Enlightenment, and that it fell to the novel to enable readers to reimagine themselves in light of the resulting contradictions. Chapter one considers how the eighteenth-century individual was dismantled, chapter two looks at the human organism erected in its place, and chapter three accounts for how human organisms form communities. By factoring fiction into the break between natural history and biology that Foucault identifies in The Order of Things (1966), I consider the effect of that epistemological shift on the history of subjectivity. In my first chapter I use Gillray’s satirical cartoon, The Cow-pock (1802), to show how the concept of a human being who is at once individual and organism was an unlivable contradiction, and how that contradiction played out in the cultural conflicts of the time. In the next chapter I use Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) to argue that the novel reimagined life within that contradiction by reconfiguring individuation into an uncertain process whose goal is both unattainable and dangerous. Finally, I use Dickens’s Dombey and Son (1848) to show how the novel developed a new conception of community suited to the self-contradiction of the individual as organism.
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