Evolution and Entropy: Representations of the Sciences in Nineteenth-Century Literature

Module code: EN3000

Module co-ordinator: to be confirmed

It is increasingly recognised that the sciences formed a fundamental and integral part of 19th century culture and that their growing importance was registered in a variety of literary forms. In this module you will explore this exciting area of interdisciplinary study by situating a variety of literary texts within the context of key 19th century scientific debates. These will include:

  • The nature of life
  • Evolution
  • Scientific authority (particularly in relation to issues of class and gender)
  • Degeneration and entropy
  • The occult

We will consider how the enormous scientific changes that took place during the period were represented in a multiplicity of different ways -- encompassing hostility, fear, and existential angst, as well as celebration and even irreverent laughter -- and examine how 19th century literature enacted the transition from the optimism of mid-Victorian science to the pessimism of later scientific enterprises. We will not only investigate the influence of science on literary texts, but also examine how scientific writing of the period used literary structures and fictional devices, and is subject to a corresponding instability of meaning.

Weekly seminars will approach each text in relation to a range of contextual and critical material selected to offer introductory and in-depth understandings of core topics. You will present, either on your own or with a fellow student, a ten minute presentation one of the core texts.

Our principal focus will be on novels, but we will also consider mass-circulation scientific works published across the century, as well as visual images. A reading pack that contains photocopies of short pieces of Victorian scientific writing, as well as other materials, will be made available at the beginning of the module.

Topics covered

The main texts are: 




  • Essay, 5,000 words (100%)