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The Physics of Possibility

Victorian Fiction, Science, and Gender
Michael Tondre

BUY Cloth · 240 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813941455 · $45.00 · Aug 2018
BUY Ebook · 240 pp. · ISBN 9780813941462 · $45.00 · Aug 2018

The Physics of Possibility traces the sensational birth of mathematical physics in Victorian literature, science, and statistics. As scientists took up new breakthroughs in quantification, they showed how all sorts of phenomena—the condition of stars, atoms, molecules, and nerves—could be represented as a set of probabilities through time. Michael Tondre demonstrates how these techniques transformed the British novel. Fictions of development by Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and others joined the vogue for alternative possibilities. Their novels not only reflected received pieties of maturation but plotted a wider number of deviations from the norms of reproductive adulthood. By accentuating overlooked elements of form, Tondre reveals the novel’s changing identification with possible worlds through the decades when physics became a science of all things.

In contrast to the observation that statistics served to invent normal populations, Tondre brings influential modes of historical thinking to the foreground. His readings reveal an acute fascination with alternative temporalities throughout the period, as novelists depicted the categories of object, action, and setting in new probabilistic forms. Privileging fiction’s agency in reimagining historical realities, never simply sanctioning them, Tondre revises our understanding of the novel and its ties to the ascendant Victorian sciences.


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

Tondre offers a robust commentary on his selected novels while also documenting the convergence of physical sciences and historiographical thinking in the mid-nineteenth century. He evidences how fictional works 'contributed to theories incipient in science' and redirected the 'physics of variation toward [more] progressive social agendas' in Victorian Britain. Tondre constructs a comprehensive framework of historical, scientific, and literary artefacts to help readers recognize the boundlessness of possibility and the inherent value in striving toward it.

British Society for Literature and Science

Tondre (English, Stony Brook Univ.) argues for the ways that developments in mathematics and physics were intricately connected not only to work of Darwin and others' thinking through variation and natural selection, but also to formal experiments, particularly in relation to time, in Victorian literature.... [T]he book’s fresh insights into Dickens, Eliot, and other oft-studied authors make it appropriate for most college and university libraries where English is studied. The index and copious bibliography would also make valuable tools for students studying Victorian literature and/or the history of science. Summing Up: Recommended.


As an account of how probability recontoured both science and literature, The Physics of Possibility truly shines.... Its argumentative polyvocality makes for a dynamic readingexperience and perhaps contributes to Tondre’s tendency to surprise the reader with rich local insights far beyond what even the strong overall argument would lead you to expect.

Modern Philology

About the Author(s): 

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

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