Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Dissertation


English Language and Literatures



First Advisor

Stern, Rebecca F


My study looks at Victorian adaptations of three key memes--narratives that are inherited and changed through a process of cultural evolution--and the nineteenth century cultural-historical conditions that produced those changes. Instead of focusing on issues of fidelity to originals, I read literary adaptations biologically and concentrate on what environmental conditions revive particular stories at particular times. Examining the cultural-historical environments demonstrates how cultures alter narratives to suit their own concerns and anxieties. Because my project engages with biology, I draw on ideas proposed in Charles Darwin's On the Origin of the Species. Given how radically Darwin's ideas shaped his culture and our own, it seems natural to apply the ideas he proposed to the literature of his time: just as he traced a species' history, I chart the lineages and evolutions of three of his culture's most important stories.

My first chapter explores the frustrated love meme--a story of unrequited, unproductive love. Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "Lancelot and Elaine" and Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh embody this meme and it responds to the surplus of marriageable women and changing gender roles following the 1851 census in Great Britain.

In the second chapter, I analyze the civilizing meme in Charles Dickens's 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities. This meme has its roots in older tales that deal with just uses and responses to power. In Dickens's adaptation, the civilizing meme offers a solution for peaceful ameliorative social change. The story's resurfacing becomes particularly important as the economic disparity between upper and working classes widened at mid-century.

Next, I consider the Janus meme. This meme's ancestral tales are stories of shapeshifting that reveal inherit dualities. Two Victorian texts that adapt this meme are Rudyard Kipling's "Mark of the Beast" and Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. These adaptations respond to the discourses of devolution at the end of the century, once the implications of Darwin's theories began to permeate society.

This dissertation concludes with a brief reading of a modern adaptation of Darwin and his work. The New York Botanical Garden's 2008 exhibit Darwin's Garden: An Evolutionary Adventure provides a current example of how culture responds to and continually adapts stories. By focusing on the exhibit's participatory nature, I demonstrate how Darwin and Darwin's new story of origin captivates a modern audience and become memes of their own.

My project contributes to ongoing conversations about the cultural function and pleasures of story telling and the interconnections between history and literature.


© 2010, Virginia Britt Terry