Theses Doctoral

Incoherent Beasts: Victorian Literature and the Problem of Species

Margini, Matthew

This dissertation argues that the destabilization of species categories over the course of the nineteenth century generated vital new approaches to animal figuration in British poetry and prose. Taxonomized by the followers of Linnaeus and organized into moral hierarchies by popular zoology, animals entered nineteenth-century British culture as fixed types, differentiated by the hand of God and invested with allegorical significance. By the 1860s, evolutionary theory had dismantled the idea of an ordered, cleanly subdivided “animal kingdom,” leading to an attendant problem of meaning: How could animals work as figures—how could they signify in any coherent way—when their species identities were no longer stable? Examining works in a wide range of genres, I argue that the problem of species produced modes of figuration that grapple with—and in many ways, embrace—the increasing categorical and referential messiness of nonhuman creatures. My first chapter centers on dog poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Michael Field, in which tropes of muteness express the category-crossings of dogs and the erotic ambiguities of the human-pet relationship. Chapter 2 looks at midcentury novels by Charles Dickens and Charlotte Brontë, arguing that the trope of metonymy—a key trope of both novels and pets—expresses the semantic wanderings of animals and their power to subvert the identities of humans. Chapter 3 examines two works of literary nonsense, Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, arguing that they invert and critique prior genres that contained and controlled the queerness of creaturely life—including, in Kingsley’s case, aquarium writing, which literally and figuratively domesticated ocean ecologies in the Victorian imaginary. In my fourth and fifth chapters, I turn to Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, two late-nineteenth-century works that explore the destabilization of the human species while still fighting against the overwhelming irresistibility of both human exceptionalism and an anthropocentric, category-based worldview. Throughout the dissertation, I argue that these representational approaches achieve three major effects that represent a break from the more indexical, allegorical forms of animal figuration that were standard when the century began. Rather than reducing animals to static types, they foreground the alterity and queerness of individual creatures. At the same time, they challenge the very idea of individuality as such, depicting creatures—including the human—tangled in irreducible webs of ecological enmeshment. Most of all, they call into question their own ability to translate the creaturely world into language, destabilizing the Adamic relationship between names and things and allowing animals to mean in ways that subvert the agency of humans. By figuring animals differently, these texts invite us to see the many compelling possibilities—ontological, relational, ethical—in a world unstructured by the taxonomical gaze.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Marcus, Sharon
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 21, 2018