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Author ORCID Identifier



Open Access Dissertation

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program

Comparative Literature

Year Degree Awarded


Month Degree Awarded


First Advisor

Maria Tymoczko

Second Advisor

Luke Bouvier

Third Advisor

Karen Remmler

Fourth Advisor

Thomas Dumm and Jessica Barr

Subject Categories

Comparative Literature


Though the present debate over artificial intelligence might seem an exclusively modern issue, the beginning of a widespread cultural debate actually dates from the end of the eighteenth century. Nineteenth-century authors quickly transformed the question of automata and artificial intelligence into something new, using popular fiction to adapt the automaton motif to political concerns and agendas. This dissertation is a cross-cultural investigation of these political dimensions of the automaton motif in nineteenth-century German, French, British, and American texts and cultural contexts. In it I employ systems theory and close readings to analyze the automaton motif as a cross-cultural system that reveals contemporary socio-political anxieties. The Introduction lays the groundwork for understanding the aims and methodology of the text. Chapter II rehearses and condenses nineteenth-century thinking about technology, with special attention given to the perception of human beings as mechanisms. It also presents a system of cross-cultural attitudes towards automata, along with relevant scientific and philosophical ideas. Chapter III focuses on E. T. A. Hoffmann’s fictional rendering of the historical automaton called the Turk in the story “Die Automate” (1814); I argue that the Turk functions as an “influencing machine” and that this machine is, in its turn, a metaphorical representation of an authoritarian state. In Chapter IV I analyze Villiers de L’Isle Adam’s L’Eve future (1886) and show the automaton featured in the novel to be a response to contemporary constructions of womanhood. Chapter V investigates post-Civil War race relations and disability discourses as these are depicted in Edward Ellis’s dime novel The Steam Man of the Prairies (1886). Chapter VI shows that the flesh-and-blood bodies operating as mechanical humanoids in H. G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) reveal anxieties over devolution. The concluding chapter deepens the readers’ appreciation of the political relevance of the automaton motif. I also show that this retrospective study of a past literary corpus that is relatively tractable provides a model of interpretation that can be profitably applied to modern literary depictions of artificial humans.