Thesis ID: CBB912416245

Identity and Morality in a Finite-Infinite World: Redefining Infinity in Nineteenth Century Novels (2018)


In 1883, German mathematician Georg Cantor revolutionized the mathematical definition of infinity. This dissertation argues that the shift in the understanding of infinity from a non-real entity to one intertwined with reality is not limited to mathematics, but a part of a larger intellectual movement. Charles Dickens' Bleak House (1853), George Eliot's Daniel Deronda (1876), and Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure (1895) are analyzed through an ecocritical lens to showcase the anxiety of accepting infinity as real. Each text is interested in individual and collective human purpose in a reality irrevocably merging with types of infinity that I label "finite-infinities," or times, distances, and concepts that are impossibly large from a specific perspective. All three novels are interested in human responsibility for the "other," or any entity outside of the self, as the number of others reaches finite-infinite levels. Dickens considers the moral responsibility of society for the poor; Eliot criticizes Victorian citizens for mistreating both their neighbors and foreigners; and Hardy questions whether or not it is possible or worth it to anticipate the needs of others. The nineteenth-century authors' attempts to better understand purpose in a finite-infinite world share roots with modern day philosophical understandings of infinity. Using infinities defined by ecocritic Timothy Morton in The Ecological Thought (2010) and Hyperobjects (2013), this dissertation argues that the nineteenth-century shift in the definition of infinity anticipates ecocriticism's move to consider a perspective of the universe that is not rooted in the individual human. Morton claims that "depression" is essential to ecological thinking, stressing the importance of considering the worst implications of decentering the human. Though Dickens and Eliot share an anxiety to maintain human worth within finite-infinite time, space, and perspectives, both authors fail to imagine a realistic way to allow their characters happiness in an infinite world, and resort to finitudes or lesser infinities to give their heroes a happy ending. In Jude the Obscure , however, Hardy forces his characters to face their own insignificance within infinity and refuses to give a route back to significance, forcing the reader to follow characters into "depression" and approach ecological thinking.

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Authors & Contributors
Henchman, Anna Alexandra
Scarry, Elaine
Fisher, Philip
LaPorte, Charles
Woodward, Kathleen
Brown, Marshall
19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century
Victorian Studies
Nineteenth-Century Contexts
Configurations: A Journal of Literature, Science, and Technology
Harvard University
University of Massachusetts Press
Palgrave Macmillan
University of Chicago Press
University of Toronto
Science and literature
Science and culture
Hardy, Thomas
Eliot, George
Dickens, Charles
Collins, Wilkie
Gaskell, Elizabeth
Darwin, Charles Robert
Time Periods
19th century
20th century
20th century, early
Great Britain

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