Scott Thompson Doctoral Defense -- 4/25 @ 3 PM via Zoom
Committee: Peter Logan (Emeritus, Chair), James Salazar, Priya Joshi, S. Pearl Brilmyer (University of Pennsylvania), & Pamela Gilbert (University of Florida)
Title: The Social Ecology of Character: British Naturalism and the Mid-Victorian Sensation Novel
My dissertation tracks an emergent theory of character in the wake of the ecological turn in the mid-Victorian period. It identifies the connection between changing representations of character in the popular sensation novel and developments in contemporary psychology. “The Social Ecology of Character” tells the story of how the idea of character fundamentally changed as a result of the development and popularization of the theory of ecology, the burgeoning notion of organisms as plastic and dynamic, given form by the precarious balance between internal physiobiological expression and external social forces. Rather than an innate quality or the result of “blank slate” impressions, character was conceptualized as a dynamic nexus of internal and external pressures in constant adjustment to its physical and social environment. This, what I call, “ecology of character” is intelligible in the sensation novel, a genre born out of a complicated overlap between the perceived physiological effects on readers and the scandalous storylines and infamous for its complex relationship between character and plot. I demonstrate how the sensation novel dramatizes the dynamic interplay between the internal and external forces that determine psychological development. Drawing on an interdisciplinary combination of literary theory, history of psychology, philosophy of science, theories of realism, gender studies, and novel and periodical theory, my dissertation argues that the sensation genre brings to the foreground the effects of the mid-Victorian ecological turn on literary character and incubates a distinctly mid-Victorian British determinism that anticipates late nineteenth-century naturalism.
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