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Program in British Studies

‘Dickens and Energy’

Allen MacDuffie

Fri, November 15, 2013 | Tom Lea Rooms, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center 3.206

2:45 PM - 4:30 PM

Charles Dickens’s Bleak House was published originally in monthly parts 1852-53.  The theme is a sustained satire on the abuses of the old court of Chancery, the delays and costs of which brought misery and ruin on virtually all those involved except, of course, the lawyers.  The case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce comes suddenly to an end on the discovery that the costs have absorbed the whole estate in dispute.
            The novel can now be understood as part of an environmentally minded discussion of energy use and waste that first emerged in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. By reading the novel as an ‘alternative thermodynamic narrative’, it can be seen as one of the first imaginative representations of the second law of thermodynamics—in other words, the ‘entropy law’.  Yet it tells also a radically different kind of story from the kind told by Victorian scientists. Just as Victorian thermodynamics emphasized ‘flaws’ in the natural order, so also did Dickens anchored his vision of dissipation in an urban environment, and in the ‘unsustainable fictions’ of his characters. Bearing in mind the revelations of subsequent scientific discoveries, Bleak House can be seen as a remarkable novel of the Victorian era as well as a work by Dickens that has enduring meaning for our own time.

Allen MacDuffie joined the English Department in 2008.  He received his Ph.D. from Harvard, where he wrote his dissertation under the direction of Elaine Scarry and Robert Kiely. His work has appeared in the journals English Literary History, Representations (the quarterly journal of humanities and interpretative social sciences), and the forthcoming PMLA (the journal of Modern Language Association of America).  His book Victorian Literature, Energy, and the Ecological Imagination will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2014.

Sponsored by: Faculty Seminar on British Studies

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