The convoluted and melodramatic plot of The Mortgage on the Brain (the full title of which is The Mortgage on the Brain, Being the Confessions of the Late Ethelbert Croft, M.D.) acquires a certain fascination by virtue of extrapolating some staple devices of Victorian and Edwardian popular fiction to an unprecedented extreme. Unlikely coincidences and cases of mistaken identity long had been commonplaces of “penny dreadful” fiction, and there is something strangely refreshing about the cavalier way in which such conventions are driven to their logical but absurd limits. Viewed as a work of popular fiction, the novel is frankly bizarre, but its formulation as a story is really only a device that endeavors to render its polemical arguments more palatable. It is really a tract intended to advance the cause of physiological psychology (a science then in its infancy) and to defend it against the criticisms of religious men who believed that it trespassed on their prerogatives.
The central claim of the novel is that the moral perfectibility of humans is the business of science, not of religion. It is widely taken for granted now—though not without a certain amount of skeptical opposition—that science is concerned solely with the determination of what is and has nothing to say about what ought to be. The philosophical debate was much more confused at the beginning of the century, when The Mortgage on the Brain was published. Harper takes the rather unusual stance that although religion is mere superstition, there nevertheless exists a moral law that is as pure and as obvious—once discovered—as the laws of...
(The entire section is 675 words.)