Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Audrey Jaffe reviews The Science of Character

S. Pearl Brilmyer. The Science of Character: Human Objecthood and the Ends of Victorian Realism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2022. 296 pp.

Review by Audrey Jaffe

Characters in nineteenth-century fiction transform the activity of tracking letters on a page into an astounding effect of the real, prompting readers to make friends with them, to speculate about their extratextual lives, to breathe more quickly, to shed tears. Speculation about the source of such effects ranges from analyses of the representation of thought and textual strategies for evoking somatic responses to more recent accounts that seek more durable answers in the realms of affect theory and cognitive science.

Pearl Brilmyer’s The Science of Character argues for a nineteenth-century conception of character as a material phenomenon, broaching the idea of a never-formalized discipline that John Stuart Mill called “ethology,” meaning “the particular and circumstantial processes through which character takes shape” (p. 1). While it did not become a scientific discipline, Brilmyer argues, ethology did find a home in that most character-centric enterprise: the Victorian realist novel. With its emphasis on character’s empirical and material formation, the realist novel, she argues, elaborates a materialist, semi-impersonal theory of human nature.

Like other recent critics of Victorian realism, Brilmyer wants to know how representations of persons in these works create such a compelling “effect of the real,” to use Roland Barthes’s term (quoted on p. 8). The novels to which this study attends make new use of materiality, Brilmyer contends, as she posits a conception of character founded in physical experience and “corporal interactions” (p. 6). The “really” of “things as they really are,” in Matthew Arnold's formulation, refers not in this context to a spiritual or ethical truth but rather to a contingent and verifiable material reality (quoted on p. 7). Despite their ability to simulate subjects, she claims, literary characters are in fact objects. To the extent that this approach involves breaking down boundaries between the observable and the invisible, it involves interrogating the conventional separation between the literary and the scientific as well. Character, in this understanding, is the “dynamic material substrate” of the subjectivity effect readers tend to see as uniquely literary and, it follows, immaterial. (p. 42).

Though she relies on the metaphorical quality of words, Brilmyer valorizes the material: such terms as fluidity and rigidity or softness and hardness are not only keys to describing specific characters but also links to nineteenth-century science. Readings of geological theory are brought to bear on the relation between stasis and change in literary character, rendering geological formations such as rocks the objective materialization of a character’s history. The Middlemarch chapter focuses, for instance, on the ways in which George Eliot’s novel constructs character as an interaction between the internal and the external; characters are not persons but “matter,” as in the soft white matter that defines Rosamond Vincy’s “plastic” personality (p. 16). Matter both alters from the inside out and is susceptible to the pressure of outside forces. Thus Eliot, in describing Dorothea’s uncle Brooke as “pulpy,” is not being merely or haphazardly metaphorical but is rather appealing to Victorian science’s idea of the pulpiness of glutinous matter (quoted on p. 44). This search for solidity in character extends to the term description itself, as referring to a physical system in mathematics and physics. Later chapters take up Hardy’s use of sculpture as a model for interrogating the relation between the ideal and the contingent; Sarah Grand’s realism as a response to Arthur Schopenhauer’s theory of the will, and Oliver Schreiner’s attention to the nonhuman worlds of nature and animals. 

Each chapter follows a similar pattern—or, as Brilmyer argues about Hardy’s sculptor, each takes the same basic shape--with variations based on the chapter’s particular text and argument. Brilmyer ties readings of one or more works by a single author to a large array of texts in nineteenth-century science, philosophy, and other fields, registering and responding to contemporary criticism at the same time. If the approach seems to rely a bit too much on this same pattern, readers will be well-served by the introduction’s assiduous laying-out of the general argument and by sections that speak to a reader's individual interests. The book is most compelling when it approaches metaphors themselves as geological formations, tracking their roots in the material world and thus seeking to implant the literal in (or return it to) fictional representation. With an acute ear for the references that give metaphors their edge, as in Eliot’s unforgettable image of a squirrel’s heartbeat as a figure for that which we cannot bear to know, Brilmyer brings the soaringly evocative back to earth, giving us a new science of literary analysis.