Rhizomatic subjects: Thomas Carlyle, Charles Kingsley, and the origins of Victorian identity

Justin Prystash*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


By examining Thomas Carlyle's scientific writings (often buried in his "literary" texts) and placing them in relation to Charles Kingsley's work on marine biology, this essay explores how these writers posit a transcendent, eternal origin in order to stabilize a normative hierarchy of subjectivity in the present. Their concept of the eternal origin was internally subverted, however, through the metaphorical irruption of organisms from natural history, especially the roots of plants and coral. These nonhierarchical, rhi-zomatic organisms express, as Carlyle puts it, so many " rhizophagous" threats to a stable English society. Due to the ontological and epistemological instability of the biological referent, these metaphors also continually subvert Carlyle's language and political message, from his early essays on Goethe to the Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850). Kingsley presents an analogous case. In the dream sequence in Alton Locke (1850), for example, he paradoxically portrays the transcendent origin of male subjectivity as materialist and matriarchal: the "madrepore" (or "mother-passage, " a type of coral) that forms the basis of Alton' s identity is described in terms of its femininity, temporal flux, and biological indeterminacy (only later is this origin subsumed in the telos of the divine "All-Father") . Ultimately, both Carlyle and Kingsley reveal the extent to which concepts of temporality and biology formed and deformed Victorian subjectivity in the pre-Darwinian period.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)141-169
Number of pages29
JournalNineteenth-Century Literature
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2011 Sept
Externally publishedYes


  • Charles Kingsley
  • Feminist theory
  • History of science
  • Thomas Carlyle
  • Victorian literature

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Literature and Literary Theory


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