In Fiction Rivals Science, Allen Thiher describes the epistemic rivalry that the major nineteenth-century French novelists felt in dealing with science. After brief considerations of Stendhal, Thiher focuses on the four most important "realist" novelists in France: Balzac, Flaubert, Zola, and, going into the twentieth century, Proust. According to Thiher, each of these novelists considered himself to be in competition with science to make the novel an instrument for knowledge.
The first chapter sets forth the understanding of science that dominated the early nineteenth century in order to make it plausible that literary minds, throughout the nineteenth century, thought that they could not only rival science, but even make positive contributions to knowledge. The Newtonian paradigm that had dominated the Enlightenment was slowly being challenged by new developments both in physics and in nonphysical sciences such as biology. Especially in biology the development of a scientific discourse using narrative temporality favored the idea that novelists could also use fiction to construct discourses that advanced knowledge.
Balzac wanted to construct a natural history of society and correct the chemical theory of his time. Flaubert drew upon medicine and physiology for the rhetoric of his realist fiction. Zola used unsuccessful medical paradigms for his doctrine of heredity, and models drawn from thermodynamics to describe the relation of the individual to societal forces. Finally, Proust drew upon thinkers such as Poincar‚ to elaborate an epistemology that put an end to the rivalry novelists might feel with scientists. Proust located certain knowledge within the realm of human subjectivity while granting the power of laws to rule over the contingent realm of physical reality, in which, after Poincar‚, neither mathematics nor Newton was any longer a source of absolute certainty. Proust's novel is thus the last great realist work of the nineteenth century and the first modernist work of consciousness taking itself as the object of knowledge.
By demonstrating that the great French realist novelists dealt with many of the same problems as did the scientists of the nineteenth century, Fiction Rivals Science attempts to show how culture unites literary and scientific inquiry into knowledge. Providing a new interpretation of the development of literary realism, this important new work will be welcomed not only by literary scholars, but by historians of science and culture as well.