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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

About the Author: 

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

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