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Reviews Goldie Morgentaler, Dickens andHeredity: When Like BegetsLike (London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 2000), pp. 216 + xiv. Anyone setting out to study the place of heredity in Dickens certainly has her work cut out for her. His novels boast more families than a season of "Coronation Street," and problems of kinship and inheritance arise in nearly all of them. But, according to Goldie Morgentaler , "this aspect of Dickens' fiction has received very little critical attention, and there has been no systematic inquiry into what Dickens understood by heredity, nor why he was so insistent on drawing attention to hereditary resemblances in his fiction" (ix). As you may have guessed, Morgentaler sets out to correct this critical oversight through an in-depth reading of the place of heredity in Dickens' novels. She argues that while Dickens' earlier works designate "goodness as a hereditary quality," this is "not constant throughout his writing career" (xi). She attributes this shift, in part, to Darwin's publication of The Origin of theSpeciesin 1859, after which Dickens "jettisons heredity" and replaces it with "metaphors of disintegration and dispersal" (175). Morgentaler proves herself to be more than capable of tackling issues of heredity, and her first chapter, "Whatever Lives Inherits: A Historical Overview of the Hereditary Puzzle," offers fascinating insight into both the complicated scientific history of heredity, as well as an understanding of the ways in which Victorians in particular would have understood (or misunderstood) issues of biological and psychological inheritance. Any scholar discussing familial plots or issues of progeny would benefit from reading her well-written and thorough discussion of preformation, hybridization, and reproduction (at least two of which were previously unknown to me), and Morgentaler skillfully relates scientific studies of heredity to the religious and mythological conceptions of it. According to Morgentaler, "[fjairy tales, legends, ballads, proverbs, superstitions, the heritage of Greek and Roman tradition, the teachings of the Bible, the plays of Shakespeare" and other aspects of popular and literary culture were "[fjar more influential in terms of elaborating and disseminating notions of heredity" (23) than were the scientific debates surrounding Victorian Review91 Reviews it, and she therefore draws on both science and culture for her study. Going from the assumption, then, that "Dickens was heir to a long and influential history of cultural assumptions about the meaning and mechanics of hereditary transmission, without necessarily being conscious of the fact" (23), Morgentaler traces what she sees as Dickens ' changing attitude towards heredity within his novels. To gready summarize her argument, the early novels — as represented by Oliver Twist, The Old Curiourity Shop, and Dombey andSon — reveal a focus on goodness as an inheritable trait While Oliver is raised in deplorable conditions, he "remains the quintessential little gendeman" (37) as "[v]irtue that has been biologically transmitted is inviolable; it cannot be affected by external circumstances" (39). By contrast, evil "tends to die out with the malefactor, and is seldom passed on to progeny" (36). Therefore, Morgentaler argues, Dickens presents heredity as the means by which virtue and benevolence are propagated and "disseminated through the population and across the generations" (52). This focus on virtue as an "hereditable characteristic" (36) becomes complicated, Morgentaler argues, in both DavidCopperfieldand Great Expectations. In these novels, Morgentaler sees Dickens allowing somewhat for environmental factors in the shaping of his characters and moving away from heredity "as the entire answer to the problem of human development" (68). DavidCopperfieldchallenges the reader to question "how much of David's personality is inherited — and therefore predetermined and immutable — and how much may be attributed to the effects of environment and experience" (64). Great Expectationsgoes one step further and Dickens takes "the radical step of totally disregarding heredity as a determining force in human development" (73). This move away from heredity becomes complete , according to Morgentaler, with the publication of Darwin's theory of evolution, after which Dickens "blot[s] out heredity altogether from his conception of human development and replacefs] it with the formative effects of environment" (157). However, while Darwin "relegated Man to the margins of Creation . . . Dickens, as a novelist, can do no such diing. Because he requires the human at the center of his fiction, he requires as well the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 91-94
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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