Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
thesis_access.pdf (1.58 MB)

The Scientific Supernatural in the Fin de Siècle Novel

Download (1.58 MB)
posted on 2021-12-07, 12:37 authored by Magaña, Kathryn

Nineteenth-century literary criticism has mainly focused on lasting scientific advancements, at the expense of a more comprehensive history, when examining the legacy of science in fiction. Yet there were many sciences that were considered plausible during the nineteenth century which have since been disproven and the ideas relegated to the realms of pseudo-science. This thesis examines novels by Bram Stoker, Marie Corelli, Florence Marryat, and Arthur Machen with attention to the scientific supernatural. Throughout this thesis, the term “scientific supernatural” will be used to reference mid- to late nineteenth-century scientific investigations conducted by various types of scientists into the supernatural and the set of phenomena that were the subject of these investigations, regardless of the twenty-first century status of the topics under investigation. Phenomena such as mesmerism, clairvoyance, and Spiritualism, which seem to be supernatural in their interactions with material aspects of the world or the supernatural realm, were studied by scientists with the understanding that they were engaged in scientific pursuits. “Scientific supernatural” is, therefore, intended to represent the scientific inquiries into the supernatural and only the areas of study that were, for a time at least, accepted as scientific by some scientists and often by society at large, evident in scientific periodicals, books, and personal documents, into the fin de siècle. Many supernatural elements in literature at the end of the nineteenth century are representations of phenomena that were being investigated by contemporary scientists and, as such, are represented within fiction as having a claim to scientific validity. This term represents the status of the various phenomena in the historical moment where the supernatural realm seemed to be the next place for science to explore.  This thesis is separated into an introduction and three chapters that discuss different depictions of the scientific supernatural. The Introduction surveys criticism of the scientific supernatural and of science in connection with late nineteenth-century literature to lay a foundation of the historical context for this science and establish a gap in current criticism of science and the fin de siècle novel. Chapter 1 explores two different representations of Spiritualism and the way the authors use science to support the worldviews taught through their fiction. The novels discussed in Chapter 2 deal with observed effects of the supernatural in the material world and the problem of explaining these occurrences when science had no certain explanation for them. Chapter 3 examines fictional depictions of scientific experimentation that represent the author’s hope that scientific evidence of the supernatural will be uncovered. In each case, the authors suggest there is something yet to be discovered which will allow science to explain the supernatural as definitely real and capable of interacting with the material world.  Fictional representations of the scientific supernatural such as those discussed throughout this thesis reveal a wider understanding of science at the fin de siècle than has previously been addressed in literary criticism. As such, this thesis suggests the need for a broader critical understanding of science, and scientific potential, that mirrors that of fin de siècle English conception of science to more fully inform the scientific legacy left in fiction of the time.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

English Literature

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies


Jackson, Anna; Hessell, Nikki