Year of Publication

2015

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

College

Arts and Sciences

Department

English

First Advisor

Dr. Ellen Rosenman

Abstract

Darwin’s evolutionary theory provided, for some atheist and agnostic authors in Victorian England, a theory of kinship and community, of investment in the world, that had been missing before. Without a “creation” story that could match the Biblical version, those who stood outside the dominant Christian paradigm rarely had the words or concepts to construct their own visions of how humans fit into the existence of other species, into landscapes, and into a world that, if unfallen, seemed resistant to other explanations. Those who did construct alternate mythologies usually reared them on a Christian base.

Into the Victorian loss of faith, Darwin’s theory irrupted, another crack in the foundation of Christian belief but a living tree for those who could accept its consequences and trace them to their logical ends. Darwin’s own beliefs and supporters tended in the agnostic direction; scientific evidence gave a solid, often intensely interesting, fertile ground for the growth of stories that did not have a teleology and rejected transcendence and separation from the animal world. This tension, neither separation nor absolute sameness as other species, but a middle ground, constantly tied in inescapable bonds, at once without traditional comfort and full of the attempts to find a new joy, can be expressed as kinship-in-difference.

These ideas still hold resonance within the modern world, where some refuse to accept that human beings are descended from other species, and with it, refuse to accept that human beings are bounded within the environment of Earth and must suffer from its catastrophes. Fantasies of escape and theological and teleological convictions still flourish in modern nature writing, side-by-side with a conception of unity that breaks down all differences between humans and animals and subsumes them into an amorphous mass. Kinship is a way to rethink the human connection with the environment that offers a mixture of hope, realism, and reevaluation of the science that has shaped so much of our engagement with the world. Victorian atheist and agnostic writers, such as George Eliot, George Meredith, and Algernon Charles Swinburne, and their convictions, provide one extremely lively and relevant model.

Share

COinS