a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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The Old Mathematician (1848)
Dinah Maria Muloch

Contributed by Vijay Fafat

A very touching story full of pathos, quite reflective of the Victorian era ethos in the mid-nineteenth century. The writing is high-grade, though math content itself is non-existent, since the story is about a mathematician, his personality, and his sacrifices and not about mathematics itself. While a summary appears below, the true effect is in the reading of the full story.

Clement Griffin was born a commoner, someone who “sprang from that rude mass which is the foundation stone of society, but from whose rough, unformed depths, many a pure marble fragment has been brought to light; and doubtless there might be many more, if some skilful sculptor’s hand were found to breathe life and beauty into the shapeless mass.”. His conditions kept him a mere “master of writing and arithmetic in the provincial grammar-school”, even though “this man was at once a mathematician, a philosopher, a mechanist of the most ingenious kind, an astronomer, acquainted with nearly all the abstract sciences, and had pursued these various acquirements entirely unaided, save by the force of his own powerful mind. From both, poverty and choice, Clement was a Pythagorean, and would pore over mathematical and astronomical lore, which he followed as far as the written science of the times permitted. When he could go no farther on the track of others, he calculated and made discoveries for himself.”

Clement was not a misogynist but he could never understand or be comfortable with a woman. He “had almost a terror of the visible poetry of the world - woman.”. In his innocent way, he gets attracted to a young school girl, Agnes Martindale, who later becomes his student. The one-sided love grows but never finds overt expression. Agnes gets married and moves away from the village. Twenty years go by, during which time Clement invents many things but remains poor while others get rich from his efforts. Chance brings a widowed, penurious Agnes back into Clement’s life, along with her 2 children, Robert and Charles. Agnes tells him that Robert has learnt all the mathematical definitions Clement had taught Agnes all those years ago and which Agnes had fondly saved as a treasure. That brings Clement one of the very few moments of joy he has experienced in life.

Clement then tutors the children for years, sacrificing his last cherished possessions of mathematical books to help pay for their education. Particularly the older son, Robert, has a strong penchant for mathematics and Clement sets about to make him into “a first rate mathematician”. By the end of it, Agnes has moved back to London where Robert has found employment as a mathematical instrument-maker, thanks to Clement’s referral. She never gets to know of Clement’s feelings of love or of all the sacrifices he has made. The old mathematician dies penniless on the streets, with just the copy of Bible which Agnes had given him as a child in his possession...

As the final paragraph summarizes so poignantly a lesson in humility for all:

(quoted from The Old Mathematician)

“No admiring disciple has ever raised a stone above this unknown philosopher. He foretold, half a century ago, that men would journey by steam; now, the lightning-like railway passes within sight of his grave. He spent years in perfecting a mechanical invention: its wheels now whirl in a roar in a manufactory not two hundred yards from the green pillow where the brain which first conceived their uses is peacefully mingling with the dust. He first declared that the human mind and character were faithfully portrayed in the human head as in a map: not long since, in the little town where his wanderings ended for ever, a phrenologist - a learned man, too - lectured to crowded audiences on the new science. The sage - the philosopher - the devoted follower of science - has passed away and left no memory - no, not even a name written on a churchyard stone. Yet what matters it? The great men of earth are those who have done most good to that world which may never know or utter their names. But,

"The seeds of truth they sow are sacred seeds,

And bear their righteous fruits for general weal

When sleeps the husbandman.”

Originally published in Douglas Gerrold’s Shilling Magazine, March 1848. Also printed in “Littell’s Living Age”, 24 June 1848.

(Note: This is just one work of mathematical fiction from the list. To see the entire list or to see more works of mathematical fiction, return to the Homepage.)

Works Similar to The Old Mathematician
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Old Mathematician (from Maschalk Manor) by Anonymous
  2. An Old Arithmetician by Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman
  3. The Genius by Nikolai Georgievich Garin-Mikhailovskii
  4. A Mathematician's Love Story by James Richmond Aitken
  5. Lean Your Loneliness Slowly Against Mine [Lene din ensomhet langsomt mot min] by Klara Hveberg
  6. The Ore Miner's Wife by Karl Iagnemma
  7. The Housekeeper and the Professor (Hakase No Aishita Sushiki) by Yoko Ogawa
  8. Hajime's Algorithm by Mihara Kazuto
  9. Kavanagh by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
  10. The Gold-Bug by Edgar Allan Poe
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MotifAcademia, Math Education,
MediumShort Stories,

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Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)