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Updated Up To 18/01/2017
Volume 10, Issue 2 (June 2012) : 335-360
The Biology of Social Class
Habit Formation and Social Stratification in Nineteenth-Century British Bildungsromane and Scientific Discourse
Anne-Julia Zwierlein
Rubric A: Literature and Science
Rubric B: Nineteenth-Century Fiction



Analyzing how mid- to late-nineteenth-century Bildungsromane as well as scientific and philosophical texts conceive of society and the process of socialization, this essay supplements existing studies of Victorian liberalism and the British concept of “character” as Bildung. It traces the interest in the body and physiological processes – the nexus of biology and society that Bildungsromane have always been concerned with, while also emphasizing the nineteenth-century tension between voluntarism and determinism that was partly resolved in favour of scientific materialism and biological determinism at the fin-de-siècle.

Concentrating on how three related areas of nineteenth-century biological research and thinking – the science of anthropometry, physiological theories of habit formation, and the ideas of organic memory and degeneration – are represented, subverted, or reimagined in Bildungsromane and Anti-Bildungsromane by, among others, Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, the essay suggests that social stratification, a vision of society as fragmented into distinct social classes, is at the core of these mid- to late-nineteenth-century novels of development and their negotiation — and subversion — of cultural and biological models of individual and collective identity. Special emphasis is given throughout to the novels’ representative strategy of differential embodiment.

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