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The Physics of Possibility

Victorian Fiction, Science, and Gender
Michael Tondre

BUY Cloth · 248 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813941455 · $45.00 · Aug 2018
BUY Ebook · 248 pp. · ISBN 9780813941462 · $45.00 · Aug 2018

The Victorian novels of Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and others have been characterized as having lapsed plotlines, endless digressions, and an obsessive devotion to background characters. But, as Henry James asked, what do these elements mean artistically?

The Physics of Possibility answers this question by charting a thirty-year span when the mathematics of chance transformed the physical sciences of the mid-nineteenth century. Michael Tondre shows that what might be considered literary "weaknesses" actually reflect a reorientation of the basic formal categories of object, action, and setting in investigations of chance within Victorian physical science and mathematics. Novelists cultivated a common vernacular with this new science, inventing shared doctrines of realism.

Using an interdisciplinary method grounded in close readings of specific texts and archival materials, and drawing on science studies, philosophy, object theories, and cultural history, The Physics of Possibility interprets innovations across different forms of writing, tracing a trajectory from a handful of mathematically -minded savants in 1850 to a shared understanding of fiction as a vehicle devoted to the production of possible worlds.


The Physics of Possibility offers an excellent and substantial contribution to the field of studies on Victorian literature and science. As Tondre rightly observes, the distinctiveness of this period is apt to be overlooked in considerations of literature and physics, which assume the Victorians are still steeped in an eighteenth-century Newtonian worldview or view Victorian physics merely as precursors to the early-twentieth century revolutions of relativity and quantum mechanics. The book is interesting, original, and quite polished.

Barri J. Gold, Muhlenberg College, author of ThermoPoetics: Energy in Victorian Literature and Science

"Beautifully researched, beguiling, and risky in all the best ways, The Physics of Possibility opens entirely new possibilities for how we read chance in the nineteenth-century novel. Tondre convincingly teases out the complex texture of Victorian debates over probability, perspective, and normalization within contemporary mathematics, astronomy, evolutionary science, and thermodynamics. Along the way, he upends our casual sense that the realist novel simulates chance on the way to confident determinations of plot. Tondre argues, on the contrary, that novelistic probability opened a range of new prospects for indeterminacy, alternative futures, and the 'unpredictable swerve of material forms.’ Offering new approaches to science and literature, queer studies, narrative theory and the physics of character, it is impossible not to be moved by  The Physics of Possibility."

Devin Griffiths, University of Southern California, author of The Age of Analogy: Science and Literature Between the Darwins

About the Author: 

Michael Tondre is Assistant Professor of English at Stony Brook University.

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