My dissertation, “Reading Ecologies: Narrative Forms and the Victorian Literary Imagination,” extends recent scholarship in narrative theory and nineteenth-century environmental writing to illuminate how industrial and ecological forces shaped the narrative structures of Victorian fiction. Already, literary scholars have considered the destructive impact of technology and mechanization on nineteenth-century lives and landscapes; however, my dissertation expands these arguments to illustrate how industrial and ecological forces served not only as the vehicles of modernization, but also as the primary determinants of novelistic form. Driving the action and producing the effects of works such as Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (1848), Charles Dickens’s “The Signal-Man” (1866), and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), these forces – whether viral, industrial, or agricultural – brought the consequences of modern industry to bear on nineteenth century readers.
Drawing on the work of Nathan K. Hensley and Philip Steer, my project asks how “ecological formalism” – an approach that “reconsiders Victorian literary structures in light of emergent and ongoing environmental catastrophe” – allows us to see how advances in manufacturing and steam travel, agriculture and epidemiology, were being reflected in and refigured through Victorian narrative form. Each of the primary texts analyzed in my dissertation resists the bio-capitalist imperative to “advance” the plot – The Last Man’s cyclical structure staging a conflict between productive and nonproductive cycles, with the plague serving as a form of growth and advance that destroys the social and its progress; Shirley’s anticipatory framework subverting the normal passages of time through eleventh-hour character arrivals and a final chapter that – despite being titled ‘The Winding Up’ – concludes with anything but tightly-wound ending; “The Signal-Man’s” railway backdrop promising movement and speed only to deliver a storyline immobilized by spectral repetition; and Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ morally deterministic plot repeatedly stalled and disrupted by the equally deterministic forces of mechanization. In other words, each of these texts presents readers with a new form of ecological time that grates against modern subjectivity, refusing to supply what the modern reader – with his or her drive toward progress, advancement, fulfillment, and pleasure – demands. Bridging ecocritical discourse to periodical studies, I suggest that the often-harsh reviews these texts received reveal the discomfort that Victorian readers and critics felt in their engagements with these new, challenging ecological forms. By reading these reviews as indexes of growing economic and ecological anxiety, I explore how these temporal ruptures of formal coherence posed a unique challenge to Victorian readers, insofar as they forced readers to confront their own rapidly changing subjectivity. Taken as a whole, the narrative and temporal structures of these texts present us with distinct ways of thinking about capital, ecology, and modern subjectivity – form being the primary means through which these complex relationships are represented and reimagined.