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  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: October 2019

Chapter 5 - The Evolution of Point of View


In this chapter I take up two texts from the 1880s to demonstrate how evolutionary theory mandated formal experimentation in fiction. In both Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm (1883) and Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh (completed in 1884 but not published until 1903), that experimentation appears most clearly in idiosyncratic narrative point of view: Schreiner narrates a section of her novel in first-person plural, while the whole of Butler’s novel is narrated in what I call first-person omniscient point of view. Arguing for a return to and reinvigoration of the study of relations between evolution and literary form inaugurated by Gillian Beer and George Levine in the 1980s, I also broaden the scope of that study beyond Darwin. Not Darwinism but Herbert Spencer’s universalist progressivism stands behind Schreiner’s first-person plural point of view, while Butler’s narration takes shape in connection with his own peculiar brand of Lamarckism. Finally, each of these novels of the 1880s elaborates a theory of historicity derived from the same evolutionary thinking to which anomalies in point of view can be traced, a theory that requires us to interrogate the view of history encoded in the phrase ‘of the 1880s.’

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