Modern Languages & Comparative Literature

I have integrated much of what we discussed in the Darwin Seminar in my comparative literature courses, especially LTT 2850. I approach Rousseau and the English Romantics as precursors of Darwin in their search for the origins of society and the place that human beings occupy in society. Through memory, these writers seek to locate the origins, the beginnings of the individual's identity. This search for the past takes them to their birth, and even into the consciousness of an existence known before birth: a sort of missing link. I show my students that one of the great innovations of the late 18th century and early 19th century was the discovery of the past, not as evolved, but as evolving into a uncertain future. I have them read early examples of an avant-garde genre, the science fiction novel, to discover how the future is, for writers such as Verne, entirely ensconced in the reader's memory of the past. In fact, it can be said that the role of memory, of recollection is paramount for 19th-century western literature. Through its imbedded narration, Frankenstein searches the past to explain the nature of man. It poses the questions of natural versus unnatural generation, of maternity versus paternity, of the responsibilities attached to creation, both literary and biological.

In a more direct vein, I study the ways in which literary realism is connected either directly or through collective misunderstandings to Darwin's theories on the perpetuation of the species and the survival of the fittest. In particular, I use Zola's series of novels, The Rougon Macquart, which recounts the fall of a family because of genetically inscribed faults (drunkenness and violence), to illustrate how Darwinian thought mutated through its popularization. The same is true of many of Ibsen's plays, in particular Ghosts.

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Last updated 18 August 1998 (SB/JHW)