Heredity and the Novel


The concept of heredity, as represented throughout the history of the novel, may be further illuminated by certain discoveries of the modern science of genetics. Since the novel's origin, authors have explored cultural beliefs and anxieties around heredity, nobility, bloodlines, birthrights and ‘tainted’ lineages. As modern genetics grows increasingly sophisticated, novelists engage in more complex ethical questions ranging from genetic selection and manipulation to reproductive choice and hereditary ‘rights’. In science fiction genres, themes can expand into human enhancement, species destruction and creation. Yet even as contemporary works engage in the complex new science and bioethical questions that grow out of genetic research, contemporary writers remain fundamentally interested in exploring what genetic knowledge and technology means within the context of intimate human relationships.

Key Concepts:

  • Since the origin of the novel, authors have engaged with hereditary themes.

  • Changing historic notions about heredity are reflected in novels of those periods.

  • Works of literature are important sites of investigation into public perceptions of emergent scientific ideas about heredity.

Keywords: heredity; novel history; bloodlines; nobility; eugenics; degeneration; racial theories; genetics; prenatal screening; genetic manipulation


Atwood M (2003) Oryx and Crake. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Campbell BM (2005) 72 Hour Hold. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

Conrad J (1989) Under Western Eyes. Originally Published in 1957. London, UK: Penguin.

Conrad J (1990) The Secret Agent. Originally published in 1968. London, UK: Penguin.

Nordau M (1993) Degeneration [1895]. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Picoult J (2004) My Sister's Keeper. New York, NY: Washington Square.

Picoult J (2009) Handle With Care. New York, NY: Washington Square.

Sebold A (2007) The Almost Moon. New York, NY: Little, Brown.

Silko LM (1991) Almanac of the Dead. New York, NY: Penguin.

Sterne L (1976) The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. Originally Published in 1767. London, UK: Penguin.

Wells HG (1968) The Time Machine. New York, NY: Fawcett.

Zola E (1964) The Experimental Novel and Other Essays, translated by Sherman BM. New York, NY: Haskel House.

Zola E (1993) The Masterpiece, translated by Walton T. London, UK: Oxford University Press.

Zola E (1999) Pot Luck, translated by Nelson B. London, UK: Oxford University Press.

Further Reading

Davis LJ (2010) The Disability Studies Reader, 3rd edn. New York, NY: Routledge.

Mitchell DT and Snyder SL (2001) Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Sandel MJ (2009) The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in an Age of Genetic Engineering. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

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How to Cite close
Davis, Lennard J, and Jarman, Michelle(Mar 2012) Heredity and the Novel. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0005869.pub2]