Losing Our Religion?: Empathy and Compassion in the Fin de Siècle Novel

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Beckmann, Margo
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University of Guelph

Interrogating theories that posit the fin de siècle as a secular age, this dissertation investigates how biblical motifs and religious concepts entered popular literature as shared cultural knowledge. Between orthodox Christianity and atheism, a less explored terrain exists, wherein evolutionary science and non-dogmatic religious concepts enter into conversation with each other. I situate my investigation in this interstitial space, contending that while the church had lost ground as the scientific theory on common ancestry placed humans in the animal kingdom, and new biblical criticism challenged church doctrines on creation and atonement, Victorians continued to draw on a wealth of culturally embedded biblical motifs to address issues of empathy and compassion not adequately addressed by Darwinian science. While arguably this era was more secular than the high Victorian era, religion did not disappear since it was deeply entrenched in British culture. By explicating how biblical motifs and quotations are inverted or conflated with evolutionary science, my project reveals the continued influence of the Bible in promulgating an ethics of care during an age of industrialization and New Imperialism. In Chapter One I illustrate how Darwinian theory, liberal interpretations of scripture, and new spiritualities that focused on humanist virtues, such as empathy, compassion, and ethics, emerged in the fin de siècle novel, often contesting epistemologies around race, class, and gender. In Chapter Two, I examine H. Rider Haggard’s She: A History of Adventure (1888), illustrating how scripture is deployed to critique church orthodoxy. H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) is the subject of Chapter Three, wherein I investigate how Wells reconfigures and inverts scripture to argue for class equality. Chapter Four deals with Grant Allen’s The British Barbarians (1895) wherein I draw attention to how biblical motifs are reframed to argue for purity in relationships that do not view sexuality as sinful, but as a celebration of love. In Chapter Five, I illustrate how Olive Schreiner’s Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland (1897) deploys the Sermon on the Mount to launch a scathing attack on imperial capitalism and the murder of the Mashonas in Southern Africa.

Empathy, Compassion, Fin de Siècle, Religion, Bible, Ethics, secularization theory