19-20 EN2309: Literature Of The Fin De Siecle

The aim of this course is to provide cultural contexts to understand the literature and art of the later nineteenth century, commonly known as the Fin de Siècle. Perhaps the most important cultural influence on the texts chosen for study is the negative possibility inherent in the discoveries of Charles Darwin: that is, the idea of ‘degeneration’, of racial and cultural reversal, explored in texts such as "The Time Machine" by H. G. Wells, and often associated with the decadent writings of Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater and others. Wilde’s infamous novel, "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (1891), typically regarded by contemporary critics as symptomatic of a decadent consciousness, also provides a location for such pathologies in what became known as ‘darkest England’: in the borderland of the demi-monde and in the East End of London, with its fantasised criminal zones, opium dens, prostitutes and outcasts.

The fin de siècle produced some iconic works of literature, numerous of which we are considering on this course. They intersect with the period's obsessions with gender, sexuality, race and class. It is in one sense an age of anxiety and exhaustion, and yet in another way it is a period of exhilaration and excitement. The course will embrace a wide range of topics: fears of over-civilisation and diagnoses of neurasthenia in the upper classes; a psychology that divides the mind into upper and lower (primitive) layers; a psychopathology describing deviant sexualities and states of hysteria; the emergence of the ‘New Woman’; occultism and spiritualism; drug abuse; fears of contagion and disease; and ideas of apocalypse at the turn of the century. The course moves from cultural symptoms diagnosed by theorists of decline to the solution often proposed by writers concerned with Empire: a masculine regeneration sustained by travel, adventure and heroic struggle. We will consider novels, short stories, visual art, non-fiction essays and poetry.