Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Talia Schaffer

Committee Members

Richard Kaye

Caroline Reitz

Subject Categories

Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | History of Science, Technology, and Medicine | Literature in English, British Isles | Women's Studies


Nineteenth-century novel, evolution, neo-materialism, childlessness


This dissertation uses feminist neo-materialist and evolutionary theory to examine non-maternal relations among childless female characters in nineteenth-century British novels. In both the nineteenth century and the present day there is a tendency to use the authority of evolutionary biology to define women as essentially reproductive beings; their entire physical and intellectual organization is seen as geared toward childbearing and childrearing. Reading childless female characters with this tradition in mind, as well as the more open-minded counter-narrative of feminist engagements with evolution, opens up new questions about their meaning: Are they truly biological failures, or not? What avenues of physical and intellectual exertion might be particularly open to a childless woman? If her body is not invested in reproduction, what other actions, exactly might it be free to perform? Her very existence comes to signal a breakdown of conservative evolutionary assumptions that conflate woman and mother; her consistent inclusion in the Victorian novel in a variety of roles and situations, not all of them tragic, indicates that many of the writers of the time were invested in testing those assumptions and considering the full range of instincts that might be at play in a non-reproductive narrative.

My first chapter establishes the project's theoretical stance in opposition to popular essentialist evolutionary theory that often reduces female characters to maternal impulses, in favor of a more pluralistic biological narrative. The following two chapters examine individual Victorian childless female characters, specifically Jane Eyre’s Bertha Mason and Estella of Great Expectations, as examples of this evolutionary openness. While the aforementioned essentialist theory would see these characters as failures for not reproducing, their narratives and my more generous theoretical lens, encourage viewing them as complex, influential examples of a less deterministic Darwinism. The final two chapters use sororal relations as examples of non-maternal evolutionary strategies and find within them evidence of broader evolutionary roles for women. In the examples I explore from Pride and Prejudice and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, among others, a female character’s primary relationship may not be to her romantic partner and potential mate, but rather her sister, whom she influences and protects for the good of the entire family.