The Physics of Possibility offers a fresh account of mid-Victorian realist novels, one that understands their loose, digressive, and occluded plotlines not as artistic shortcomings but as signs of their engagement with contemporary scientific discourse. Michael Tondre aptly describes the aesthetic of these novels as “realism couched in the conditional or subjunctive mood” (4) and argues that they are essentially experiments in the logic of probability. The decades on which he focuses (1850–80) are particularly rich in such experimentation because they form an interstitial period in the history of mathematical probability. Before midcentury probability was typically understood in relation to belief: it was, for instance, used to describe the subjective expectations that attend the flipping of a coin or gambling. As probabilistic models were increasingly applied to more complex phenomena in the physical sciences, this subjective model was gradually—although not entirely—displaced by one that proposed to give an account not...
The Physics of Possibility: Victorian Fiction, Science, and Gender
Andrea Henderson is professor of English at the University of California, Irvine. She is author of Romantic Identities: Varieties of Subjectivity, 1774–1830 (1996) and Romanticism and the Painful Pleasures of Modern Life (2008). Her most recent book, Algebraic Art: Mathematical Formalism and Victorian Culture (2018), is a study of formal abstraction in Victorian mathematics and literature.
Andrea Henderson; The Physics of Possibility: Victorian Fiction, Science, and Gender. Modern Language Quarterly 1 June 2020; 81 (2): 257–260. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00267929-8151637
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