Exquisite grotesques
: evolutionary thought and the mythic hybrid at the fin de siècle

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Abstract

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a startling resurgence of cultural interest in hybrid figures from classical mythology. This thesis argues that the ubiquity of mythic animal-human hybrids in fin-de-siècle culture stemmed in significant part from anxieties prompted by the popular genesis of evolutionary theory. The evolutionary hypothesis destabilised the perceived boundaries between human and animal. In doing so, it granted a renewed imaginative power to the hybrid, through whose composite form evolutionary fears (and fantasies) could be embodied, developed, and played out. The significance of the mythic hybrid in expressing evolutionary anxieties during this period has been critically underexamined; this thesis seeks to rectify this lack.

After an initial chapter that addresses the close relationship between evolutionary science and myth-studies during the nineteenth century, each subsequent chapter focuses on a different hybrid being: the faun, the sphinx, the siren, and the centaur. I examine works by Arthur Machen, Oscar Wilde, H. G. Wells, and Algernon Blackwood, in genres ranging from poetry to Weird fiction. Dates of publication span from 1894-1911. In each of these texts, evolutionary concerns are not only reflected, but also generated and imaginatively enacted, through the figure of the hybrid. The implications of evolutionary theory were wide-ranging, and this study touches on a correspondingly broad array of related issues. These include the possibility of human degeneration, the scientific recognition of ‘deep time’, post-Darwinian constructions of femininity, and the evolutionary significance of same-gender attraction. All of these find expression in narratives involving mythic hybrids.

Composite beings were an important element in the imaginative expression of pervasive evolutionary anxieties at the turn of the century. This study shows that an examination of this critically neglected literary phenomenon can offer fresh insight into the broader intersections of science and culture at the fin de siècle.
Date of Award12 May 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bristol
SupervisorStephen H Cheeke (Supervisor) & Ronald E Hutton (Supervisor)

Keywords

  • Mythology
  • Classical reception
  • Evolution
  • Darwinism
  • Victorian
  • Fin de siècle

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