On Background: Scenery, Ecology, and the Social Novel


ACLS Fellowship Program




This literary history seeks to explain why novelists tend to treat human beings as characters while relegating the nonhuman world to the status of mere setting. Focusing on the cultural ascendance of the realist novel in nineteenth-century Britain, "On Background" argues that the novel emerged into its so-called golden age by breaking away from a much more inclusive narrative tradition that emphasized the material networks connecting society to the natural world—the tradition that eventually gave rise to both economics and ecology. Moral disputes led Victorian novelists to part ways with these fields and to refashion their approaches to character and setting to prioritize human needs. This project thus offers a new, interdisciplinary genealogy of the dynamics between character and setting even as it suggests how the reconsideration of literary forms could help foster a more inclusive, more ecological worldview.