Science in Nineteenth-Century Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Science in Nineteenth-Century Literature


Science in Nineteenth-Century Literature

The nineteenth century was a period of many advances in the field of science and medicine. Society placed a great deal of emphasis on the empirical understanding imparted by the use of scientific methodology, and leading periodicals printed essays and treatises on scientific and medical theories of the time, thus imparting this knowledge to the general public.

One of the most important influences of the Romantic movement was its belief in the authority of nature over social conventions. For the Romantic poets and philosophers, nature represented a moral and physical sanctuary for self-expression and imaginative invention. In contrast, scientific advancement and the public's increased interest in science during the Victorian era led to the replacement of the seemingly transcendental power of nature with the new and more authoritative discourse of science. Science itself was imbued with romance, and imaginative ideas and scientific fact often interacted with each other. Authors such as T. S. Eliot and G. H. Lewes were well versed in contemporary scientific theory, and they enjoyed differentiating truth from superstition, ardently pursuing scientific accuracy in their writing and theory.

A significant landmark in this shift of focus from the power of nature to the power of science occurred in the 1830s, when Charles Lyell proposed his Uniformitarian theory, which stated that changes in the earth's surface had occurred gradually over millions of years. Despite vehement attacks by creationists—those who believed in the literal truth of the Bible's version of the origin of the earth and its inhabitants—most nineteenth-century intellectuals accepted the idea of evolution by the 1850s. By 1860, when Charles Darwin issued Origin of the Species, the authoritative text on evolutionary theory, many scholars, scientists, and writers were already incorporating this and other contemporary scientific theories into their work and writings. Although nature was no longer perceived as a quasi-divine force, the study of nature nonetheless provided an understanding of the meaning and value of human life. This was a time of great public participation in these discoveries—Victorians were interested in acquiring this new knowledge and attended numerous lectures on scientific subjects. Scientists like William Tyndall and Thomas Huxley enjoyed the same recognition and popularity as such novelists as George Eliot and Charles Dickens.

In addition to advances in theory, the nineteenth century also witnessed an explosion in technology, promising abundance and a good life for all. Science itself held out the tempting prospect that it was possible to discover the truth about the universe and human life, and there was a strong belief in the perfectibility of humans, whose continual progress from the ancestral ape toward celestial entities was seen as a realistic outcome of evolution. The writing of the time explored these possibilities, and many works of literature focused on the promise that science would reveal all mysteries. Victorians were fascinated by the possibility of revealed secrets and this preoccupation was most obviously demonstrated in their focus on the field of medical science. In an essay discussing George Eliot's The Lifted Veil Kate Flint examines this very issue, characterizing Eliot's text as an intervention in this arena.

While the literature of the time explored scientific theory and knowledge, some also satirized nineteenth-century science, most notably the works of such authors as Mark Twain. Science's critics focused on the debate over the inherent superiority of scientific study over other forms of knowledge, and philosophers such as Huxley—known for popularizing scientific thought—became special targets for the era's satirists. The prevailing belief that the natural world could, via empirical dissection, be completely understood, as well as the belief that scientific revelation was the highest possible form of intellectual insight were both parodied by many authors of the time; this was, in fact, a recurrent theme in the writings of both Emily Dickinson and Percy Bysshe Shelley. While scientists stressed the value of objective observation and inductive reasoning, other theories of social Darwinism stressed man's inevitable future progress towards a higher evolutionary status. These and other ideas about the finite and essentially mechanistic nature of the universe were strongly influential in the literature of the time, leading many contemporary authors to respond to these ideas in their prose and poetry.

The nineteenth century witnessed the emergence of various disciplines of study, some of which encroached on intellectual territory previously dominated by literature. In the past, the task of representing and dissecting society had been seen as the purview of novelists, writers, and poets. With the emergence of such disciplines as sociology and anthropology, though, the various anxieties, premises, and social formations typically explored in literature were increasingly being scrutinized as part of a formal branch of science. Many writers, including Herman Melville, Henry James, and Theodore Dreiser, responded to this phenomenon in their writings. In an essay that explores these simultaneous developments, Susan Mizruchi states that the study of the rise of sociology in terms of contemporary novels helps to greatly enhance our understanding of the imaginative aspects of this new nineteenth-century discipline. Earlier writers, such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Whitman, and Thoreau, had also found themselves deeply enmeshed in the changes scientific discoveries brought upon their work. With the advent of science, the literature of nature that these authors were best known for also underwent many changes. In this new Age of Science, when the general public became increasingly fascinated with the emerging and fast-changing disciplines of astronomy, geology, geography, and chemistry, a new space was opened for writers who could interpret these ideas for a popular audience. Yet, at the same time that the vibrant and connective powers of science were bringing an understanding of the whole of nature to humans, many writers also felt that there was much about the new disciplines that would alienate and leave behind those who could not keep pace with the increasingly inaccessible nature of its discourse. These conflicts were seen in many works written at this time, especially in the works of authors who themselves were deeply engaged with science.

Not surprisingly, the rise and influence of scientific study had the most profound affect on the place of poetry in society. For the Romantics, poetry served to uplift and edify, and the poet occupied a central place in the interpretation of the divine and natural forces that made up the universe. The advent of empirical ideas, many of which stressed methodology and objective reporting over imagination and inspiration, caused many writers and intellectuals to question the role and value of poetry in contemporary society. The works of Darwin and others were challenging the spiritual values that had previously been the domain of poetry, and many scientists forecast the demise of poetry altogether since scientists were considered the logical replacements of poets as interpreters of universal ideals. While some argued the superiority of one discipline over the other, many poets seized this opportunity to integrate new scientific knowledge into their writing. This, coupled with numerous other societal changes involving such issues as economic welfare, commercialism, and women's rights, led many contemporary poets to experiment extensively with both content and form in the verse they were producing. In the United States, the optimistic nineteenth-century belief in the perfectibility of humankind was soon replaced by a crisis of faith following the Civil War—people questioned their faith in innate goodness, and many of the early benefits of technological advances were increasingly offset by disadvantages and risks. There was an increasing disparity between the rich and poor, and technology seemed to be undermining the country's early sense of unity and goodwill. Eventually, the conflicts and issues raised by scientific theories that had left people in doubt of the existence of a divine creator led to a need for reconciliation between science, religion, and the human imagination, forcing the birth of a poetry that would help explain how evolution might coexist with religious explanations of creation and human nature.

Representative Works

Charles Darwin
On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (non-fiction) 1860

Emily Dickinson
Poems by Emily Dickinson (poetry) 1890

George Eliot
The Lifted Veil (novel) 1859
Middlemarch (novel) 1871

Thomas Hardy
Far From the Madding Crowd (novel) 1874
A Laodicean: A Novel (novel) 1881
Two on a Tower: A Romance (novel) 1882

Edgar Allan Poe
“Ligeia” (short story) 1838
The Raven and Other Poems (poetry) 1845

Percy Bysshe Shelley
Queen Mab: A Philosophic Poem, with Notes (poetry) 1813
A Defence of Poetry (essay) 1820
Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, Author of Endymion, Hyperion, Etc. (poetry) 1821

Alfred Tennyson
In Memoriam (poetry) 1850

Henry David Thoreau
Walden, or Life in the Woods (non-fiction) 1854

Criticism: Major Figures

Fred D. White (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “‘Sweet Skepticism of the Heart’: Science in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson,” in College Literature, Vol. 19, No. 1, February, 1992, pp. 121-28.

[In the following essay, White discusses the impact of science on Dickinson's poetry, speculating that the poet used her writing to explore the negative effects of the scientific impulse to uncover every secret of nature.]

Few poets in the twentieth century, let alone the nineteenth, have incorporated scientific concepts into their work as purposively and effectively as Emily Dickinson.1 She possessed an amazingly comprehensive scientific and technical vocabulary.2 More than 200 of her...

(The entire section is 3240 words.)

Beverly A. Hume (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “The Madness of Art and Science in Poe's ‘Ligeia,’” in Essays in Arts and Sciences, Vol. 24, October, 1995, pp. 21-32.

[In the following essay, Hume analyses Poe's “Ligeia” as a synthesis of mythology and science.]

In a September 1839 letter to Philip Cooke, Edgar Allan Poe expressed his view that “Ligeia” was “intended to convey an idea of truth to the narrator” (Letters 118). Although numerous critics have offered theories about what this “truth” might be, they all tend to treat Poe's narrator either as a romantic artist or madman, diminishing his scientific ruminations in this tale. However, a close reading of this narrator's...

(The entire section is 6121 words.)

Kate Flint (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Blood, Bodies, and The Lifted Veil,” in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 51, No. 4, March, 1997, pp. 455-73.

[In the following essay, Flint examines George Eliot's The Lifted Veil as a text representative of the developing contemporary debate about the relationship between physiology and psychology.]

On 17 March 1878 Edith Simcox paid a visit to George Eliot and her companion, George Lewes. Simcox recorded their conversation in her Autobiography: “I asked about the Lifted Veil. Lewes … asked what I thought of it. I was embarrassed and said—as he did—that it was not at all like her other writings, wherefrom she differed; she...

(The entire section is 6893 words.)

Ted Underwood (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “The Science in Shelley's Theory of Poetry,” in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 58, No. 3, September, 1997, pp. 298-321.

[In the following essay, Underwood evaluates Shelley's engagement with contemporary debates on science and natural philosophy, remarking on the connections between his scientific studies and poetic theories.]

Awareness of Percy Shelley's interest in science has had surprisingly little effect on criticism of his poetry. Romanticists have known since the publication of Carl Grabo's Newton among Poets that many of Shelley's images were modeled on the science of his time.1 But when critics offer extended readings of his...

(The entire section is 8254 words.)

Beverly A. Hume (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Twain's Satire on Scientists: Three Thousand Years Among the Microbes,” in Essays in Arts and Sciences, Vol. 26, October, 1997, pp. 71-84.

[In the following essay, Hume characterizes Three Thousand Years Among the Microbes as one of Twain's few satiric attacks on the scientific ideologies of his time.]

Despite the fact that Mark Twain's Three Thousand Years Among the Microbes is as substantial a work as other late literary fragments such as the Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts, critics have come to regard Microbes as one of Mark Twain's lesser late fragmentary writings which, as Virginia Starret summarizes in the 1993...

(The entire section is 4879 words.)

Patricia O'Neill (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Victorian Lucretius: Tennyson and the Problem of Scientific Romanticism,” in Writing and Victorianism, edited by J. B. Bullen, Longman, 1997, pp. 104-19.

[In the following essay, O'Neill offers an analysis of Tennyson's poetry, explaining that his synthesis of the romantic and scientific helped define the Victorian response to the muddied waters stirred by scientific discovery.]

One of the most important influences of the Romantic movement in literature was its belief in the authority of nature over social conventions. Guiding and mediating individual thoughts and feelings, the processes and objects of nature inspired poets such as Wordsworth, Keats and...

(The entire section is 5471 words.)

Eric Wilson (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Dickinson's Chemistry of Death,” in American Transcendental Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 1, March, 1998, pp. 27-43.

[In the following essay, Wilson examines Dickinson's poems concerning death, noting that while the poet's attitude toward the power of the scientific method is generally favorable, she rejects the validity of scientific conclusions about death's mysteries.]

In 1877, in the autumn of her life, Emily Dickinson, drawing from her internal spring, reminisced about connections among science, death, and language in a letter to Thomas Higginson: “When Flowers annually died and I was a child, I used to read Dr. Hitchcock's Book on the Flowers of North...

(The entire section is 7015 words.)

Clare Pettitt (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “‘Cousin Holman's Dresser’: Science, Social Change, and the Pathologized Female in Gaskell's ‘Cousin Phillis,’” in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 52, No. 4, March, 1998, pp. 471-89.

[In the following essay, Pettitt uses “Cousin Phillis” to probe Elizabeth Gaskell's views of science and contemporary scientific culture.]

Gaskell completed her novel Sylvia's Lovers, the “tiresome book” that had taken her three years to write, in January 1863.1 It is a novel in which will and desire seem impotent over the development of narrative and history, and, despite the fact that no scientists appear in its pages, there is evidence...

(The entire section is 7109 words.)

Linda C. Brigham (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “Disciplinary Hybridity in Shelley's Adonais,” in Mosaic, Vol. 32, No. 3, September, 1999, pp. 21-39.

[In the following essay, Brigham studies Shelley's Adonais as an interdisciplinary poem that incorporates scientific literature with traditional poetry.]

Research programs in science studies—as well as more general programs in women's studies and cultural studies—have for the past two decades testified to a dissatisfaction with traditional disciplinary boundaries in the academy. At the same time, negative reactions to these interdisciplinary forays, most notoriously in Paul Gross's and Norman Levitt's Higher Superstition (1994),...

(The entire section is 7328 words.)

Robert Schweik (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “The influence of religion, science, and philosophy on Hardy's writings,” in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Hardy, edited by Dale Kramer, Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 54-72.

[In the following essay, Schweik outlines the influence of contemporary religious, scientific, and philosophic thought on Thomas Hardy's writings.]

A consideration of the influence of contemporary religion, science, and philosophy on Hardy's writings requires some prefatory cautions. First, such influences often overlap, and identification of how they affected Hardy's work must sometimes be no more than a tentative pointing to diverse and complex sets of possible sources...

(The entire section is 8104 words.)

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

William Brackett (essay date 1879)

SOURCE: “Modern Science in its Relationship to Literature,” in Popular Science Monthly, Vol. 15, June, 1879, pp. 166-78.

[In the following essay, Brackett discusses the relationship between science and literature in the nineteenth century, claiming that new avenues in literature were limited and science offered the opportunity to achieve notoriety while exploring a new and vital topic.]

The innovations made by science upon other modes of thought and study within the last half century are without a parallel in the history of human progress. It has swept away many of our most cherished convictions, hoary with the dust of ages, and left others in their places entirely...

(The entire section is 6611 words.)

John Burroughs (essay date 1888)

SOURCE: “Science and the Poets,” in Cosmopolitan, Vol. 5, No. 2, April, 1888, pp. 127-30.

[In the following essay, Burroughs looks at nineteenth-century literary figures, including Keats, Tennyson, Emerson, and Carlyle, to assess the extent to which these writers were influenced by science.]

It is interesting to note to what extent the leading literary men of our country and time have been influenced by science, or have availed themselves of its results. A great many of them not at all, it would seem. Among our own writers Bryant, Irving, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Whittier, show little or no trace of the influence of science. The later English poets, Arnold,...

(The entire section is 3046 words.)

Thomas E. Mayne (essay date 1894)

SOURCE: “Science in Song,” in The Westminster Review, Vol. 141, No. 6, 1894, pp. 668-74.

[In the following essay, Mayne discusses how poetry and science are more similar than different in that they both seek truth. Likewise, Mayne claims that the best way to popularize scientific knowledge is to put it into verse.]

It was once fashionable to say that poetry and truth were composed of such antagonistic qualities that by no process of fusion in the crucible of genius could they be got to mix. Coleridge gave his opinion that science and poetry were for ever irreconcilable. Edgar Poe insisted on the same fallacy. Other and lesser poets and versifiers caught up the...

(The entire section is 2394 words.)

Susan Mizruchi (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “Fiction and the Science of Society,” in The Columbia History of the American Novel, edited by Emory Elliott, Columbia University Press, 1991, pp. 189-215.

[In the following essay, Mizruchi examines the emergence of the science of sociology in the nineteenth century and discusses the ways in which the concerns of this new science corresponded to the concerns of contemporary novelists.]

In The Incorporation of America (1982), Alan Trachtenberg describes the significance of the White City as symbol, its ability to transform the diverse and conflicted America of 1893 into an image of national unity. White City was a study in managed pluralism: organized...

(The entire section is 10256 words.)

Allene Cooper (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Science and the Reception of Poetry in Postbellum American Journals,” in American Periodicals, Vol. 4, 1994, pp. 24-46.

[In the following essay, Cooper traces the influence of the scientific theories of evolution and determinism on nineteenth-century poetry, explaining that the period was one of extensive experimentation in the subject matter and form of verse.]

In 1870, the editor of Putnam's Magazine wrote an essay titled “Poetry Not Dead” (P 5 4/70 505).1 In it, he argued against claims that our society no longer had any use for poetry that strives to uplift and edify. Notwithstanding his defense, the sentimental poetry he...

(The entire section is 7854 words.)

Laura Dassow Walls (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Science and the Shaping of Nineteenth-Century American Nature Literature,” in Literature of Nature: An International Sourcebook, edited by Patrick D. Murphy, Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1998, pp. 18-25.

[In the following essay, Walls finds that the rise of nature literature is related to the hardening distinctions between science and literature, an issue that was of great significance to intellectuals in the nineteenth century.]

Nineteenth-century science both created and constrained the possibilities for nature literature, making their relationship an uneasy one throughout the century. This was the Age of Science, as intellectuals then and since have...

(The entire section is 4896 words.)

William Morgan (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “Universal Aspirations: Social Theory and American Literary Culture,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 45, No. 4, Winter, 1999, pp. 1012-18.

[In the following essay, Morgan reviews two 1998 texts dealing with the effects of modernization and globalization on late-nineteenth-century intellectuals, commenting on the resonating power of questions raised by social theorists at the turn of century.]

In Middlemarch (1871), George Eliot portrays nineteenth-century intellectuals as victims of the totalizing ambitions of their vocations. Causabon, a theologian, strives to codify the “Key to All Mythologies” and Lydgate, a doctor and medical researcher,...

(The entire section is 2045 words.)

Criticism: Sociopolitical Concerns

Laura Dassow Walls (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “A Plurality of Worlds,” in Seeing New Worlds: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Nature Science, University of Wisconsin Press, 1995, pp. 167-211.

[In the following excerpt, Walls surveys nineteenth-century theories about the plurality of worlds in the context of several notable non-fiction works of the time.]

We might try our lives by a thousand simple tests; as, for instance, that the same sun which ripens my beans illumines at once a system of earths like ours. If I had remembered this it would have prevented some mistakes.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

One of the...

(The entire section is 22622 words.)

David Knight (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Thomas Henry Huxley and Philosophy of Science,” in Thomas Henry Huxley's Place in Science and Letters, edited by Alan P. Barr, University of Georgia Press, 1997, pp. 51-66.

[In the following essay, Knight appraises Thomas Henry Huxley's influence on the study and popularity of science in the nineteenth century.]

Huxley was a bold, accessible, and above all controversial writer, at his best defending a friend or attacking an enemy—a David in constant search of Goliaths, if we may use the kind of biblical imagery in which he delighted. Like Aristotle, another keen student of living organisms, Huxley developed his positions in argument with others, living...

(The entire section is 5722 words.)

Further Reading


Berger, Michael. “Henry David Thoreau's Science in The Dispersion of Seeds.Annals of Science, 53 (1996): 381-97.

A discussion of The Dispersion of Seeds as evidence of Thoreau's pioneering role in the history of ecology.

Cowlishaw, Brian. “‘A Warning to the Curious’: Victorian Science and the Awful Unconscious in M. R. James's Ghost Stories.”The Victorian Newsletter, 94 (Fall 1998): 36-42.

Theorizes that James's stories are representative of Victorian assumptions regarding history, evolution, and human civilization.

Early, Julie English. “Unescorted in...

(The entire section is 439 words.)