30:499 Topics in the Nineteenth Century: The End of the World

We live in a moment of intersecting crises—marked by climate change, the global pandemic, and political regression—which often feels apocalyptic. This is not humanity’s first confrontation with its own mortality; in the 19th century, discoveries in geology, biology and elsewhere radically expanded the age of the world and the size of the universe, and displaced humanity from its pedestal as God’s chosen species; instead, writers of this period grappled with the realization that the world had an expiry date and humanity was susceptible to extinction. In this online course, we will examine 19th-century texts tackling apocalyptic threats such as natural disaster, plague, war and invasion, and pollution and climate change. We will study the origins of these texts in new scientific discoveries, industrialization, and political anxieties from the French Revolution to the First War World. We will discuss the challenges in representing the scale of global catastrophes or a world without humanity. And we will ask: were these texts intended as a warning of things to come, spurring their audiences into social change? Were they successful? The texts in this course will be primarily prose fiction with some poetry and prose non-fiction, by authors including Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, John Ruskin, H.G. Wells and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. As this is a seminar, the course will be evaluated based on active class participation, one presentation during the term, and written essays.