This dissertation argues that the experience of wonder animates and shapes the nineteenth-century British novel. Wonder, Descartes' "first of the passions," and Socrates' "only beginning of knowledge," is a primary and instantaneous cognitive response to the unknown, the passion we feel when we are confronted with something that we cannot at the moment of contact recognize, identify, or understand. However, because the novel has been so closely identified with a rational and disenchanted modernity, stories of its rise and theories of its form do not consider or include the experience of wonder. My study finds that nineteenth-century authors, aware of and anxious about their century's so-called disenchantment, organized their novels around an effort to recuperate and reinvigorate a state of wonder within the age's rationalism, materialism, and secularism. I argue that these novelists found in the form of the novel a natural means of representing, arousing, and theorizing the experience of wonder. In fact, wonder is immanent in the form of the novel: because the novel represents reality it must represent not only the known and felt, but also the sense of what is yet unknown and unfelt that inheres in every experience of the real. Novelistic representation, in other words, works to represent not only what we see, but also the horizon that demarcates what more there is to know and see: what has, for more and less insidious reasons, been ignored or marginalized by the age's dominant epistemology.
In order to understand fully how realism, representation, and epistemology work in the novel, we need to understand that its authors are thinking about wonder, representing and generating wonder, and using the experience of wonder to challenge the strictures and paradigms that shape the reality in which they live and write. I look at the works of several authors—Mary Shelley, Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens—who were writing just before or during the time of the greatest market consolidation of the novel form and find in those experimental early nineteenth-century novels self-conscious formal, intellectual, and political engagements with the experience of wonder. These authors position the prose of the novel against the so-called "prose of the world," reaching beyond representations of the known world to suggest the not yet known world.
Examining the ways in which novelists deployed the volatile forms and figures of wonder in a culture that worried openly about wonder's absence, this study consider the ways that wonder allowed authors to advance their own aesthetic and social ideals against those ideologies and institutions that both relied on and hastened the age's disenchantment. It further asks how the genealogy of the nineteenth-century novel needs to be reconfigured to account for the persistence and immanence of wonder. It finds these novelists using the experience of wonder to challenge the authors with whom they were in conversation, the ideologies of the culture in which they lived, and the oppressive and damaging systems built on a fully empiricist epistemology and rationalist metaphysics. And finally, it turns toward the middle and late nineteenth century, the age dominated by the cultural form of the novel, asking how those novels and the visions of society they offer might look different if we begin to read them for their wonder.