Thesis ID: CBB244855503

Nonhuman Being: Chimeric Forms in Late-Nineteenth Century Literature and Science (2024)


In The Descent of Man (1871), Charles Darwin construed Homo sapiens as incongruously put-together, a bricolage, assembled out of other distinct organisms, natures, or forms—we are more than, less than, or other than human. In doing so, Darwin challenged anthropocentrism from within, insisting that the human form itself is a form of forms, an agglomeration of traits that record evolutionary time and processes, a composition that bears traces of kinships with an incomprehensibly vast menagerie of other beings. And though ancestral species were mostly conjectural, the involvement of nonhuman traits in Darwin’s reading of the human evokes a paradoxical, chimeric creature: a nonhuman human. Nonhuman Being: Chimeric Forms in Late-Nineteenth Century Literature and Science tracks these strange, seemingly fantastic forms across a range fictional texts, both scientific and literary. My dissertation argues that chimeric figures pervade Victorian literature and culture, offering significant engagements with and arguments about human natures’ nonhuman nature. Or, as might be the more interesting claim, chimerism allowed the nonhuman to be brought fully within the ontological scope of Homo sapiens. These figures thrive in the misty borderland between science and fantasy, realistic and fantastic fiction, real and make-believe, possibility and impossibility. Given this, I also argue that chimeric figures unsettle tidy dichotomies between formal classifications between various genres, forms, or literary conventions. My first chapter focuses on Darwin’s nonhuman interpretation of the human form and faculties, especially what he called traces or stamps and considers contemporary critical responses that mocked him for being overly imaginative—for practicing a kind of make-believe. My second chapter turns to Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies (1863). In this satirical fairytale (written for adults as well as for children), Kingsley uses his protagonist Tom, who has transformed into a water-baby, to lampoon stuffy scientists he considers too dismissive of the wonders of nature. Kingsley even calls into question the assumed unrealism of the fairytale itself—if the world contains so many wonders, none should dismiss an organism or phenomena simply because it seems “too wonderful to be true” (The Water-Babies 42). The third chapter pivots to H.G. Wells’s horrifying The Island of Dr. Moreau. Edward Prendick lives for months with the artificially-created chimeric Beast People who, Dr. Moreau insists, “were not men, had never been men” (Island 70-71). When Prendick returns to England, however, he finds his fellow Englishmen and women are themselves chimera, “another still passably human, Beast People” (130); indeed, Wells’s novel suggests, there may never have been a “humanity” to begin with. My fourth chapter turns to George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda and considers how Eliot’s characters challenge readers’ and observers’ processes of interpretation and classification in two contexts. While Deronda ultimately blends Jewishness and Englishness (identities many characters treat as mutually exclusive), Gwendolen and Grandcourt combine (in their dueling classifications) the human and the nonhuman; Gwendolen mixes the human and the nonhuman by dressing the part of the serpent, while Grandcourt embodies the possibility of an extended inheritance, seeming to inherit nonhuman (particularly coldblooded) traits. Finally, my concluding chapter draws Nonhuman Being into the twenty-first century. I close by considering where chimeras are today, arguing that they remain a fixture in our ongoing engagement with the fraught status of human nature; in doing so, I briefly survey some modern fiction that contains chimeric figures.

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Authors & Contributors
Ancet, Pierre
Browne, E. Janet
Durbach, Nadja
Kavey, Allison B.
Knoepflmacher, U. C.
Linker, Beth
Victorian Literature and Culture
Archives of Natural History
Configurations: A Journal of Literature, Science, and Technology
Endeavour: Review of the Progress of Science
University of Pennsylvania
Vanderbilt University
University of California, Santa Cruz
Ohio State University Press
Pegasus Books
Presses Universitaires de France
Teratology; monsters
Science and literature
Human body
Science and gender
Popular culture
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft
Carlyle, Thomas
Darwin, Erasmus
Dickens, Charles
Kipling, Rudyard
Shelley, Percy Bysshe
Time Periods
19th century
20th century
16th century
17th century
20th century, early
Great Britain
Java (Indonesia)

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