James Joyce

Similarly to what we read for Monday, James Joyce has a quiet underlying tone connected to TS Elliot. There is a sense of anxiety and discomfort, as well as sometimes the sense of (semi) youth struggle into adulthood. The images in “Araby” such as; “When we met in the street the houses had grown sombre.  The space of sky above us was the colour of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns.  The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed” (2219) really raised an important image for me of the differences of classes in society. In addition of commentary on society, there is also commentary on individualism, in “Araby” there is the line, “The high cold empty gloomy rooms liberated me” (2220) giving the reading the poetic idea of allowing oneself to be calm and free just the way they are.

Poetry is so often written in the first person, so since Joyce sticks to this with his dialogue and such throughout the piece, it gives the reader more of the sense that there is an intentional message through poetry, versus when writing in prose, sometimes it is simply to (for lack of better word) vent and also may not have as much internal dialogue.


In Eveline, Joyce uses poetic imagery to represent emotion. “She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue. Her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne. She was tired” (2222). The way this passage opens allows the reader to become Eveline. I can imagine myself sitting by the window and observing life pass me by. I am tired and all I can do is watch as life passes me by. Eveline is reminiscing and remembering parts of her life. She is struggling with the decision to stay with her abusive father or to run away and meet with Frank. Will life be any different if she stays or if she goes? Or no matter her decision will she continue to watch through the window? Joyce uses the imagery in this poem to create more meaning than simple words. There is so much emotion in this poem and a struggle to find out who she (Eveline) is and who she wants to be.

Joyce comes back to the window and Eveline’s struggle with, “Her time was running out but she continued to sit by the window, leaning her head against the window curtain, inhaling the odour of dusty cretonne. Down far in the avenue she could hear a street organ playing. She knew the air. Strange that it should come that very night to remind her of the promise to her mother, her promise to keep the home together as long as she could” (2224). The poetic flow of these lines are sad and hold so much meaning. Should I stay or should I go? Does it matter anymore? The struggle and the pain is there. If Eveline leaves will the pain go away or will it only follow her because she will be breaking a promise to her mother? Does it even matter because her mother is not there to see her fail? She is failing either way. Neither decision will be better than the other. Neither decision can make her truly happy and because of that life will always pass her by.


“Home! She looked around the room, reviewing all it’s familiar objects which she had dusted… Perhaps she would never see again those familiar objects from which she had never dreamed of being divided”

In Eveline, James Joyce’s description of Eveline’s surroundings shows a modernist concept of exploring those things which are new. Even though at this time in history change is inevitable and wanted, there is also apprehension towards new ventures of a new society. Throughout Eveline, she alludes to the harshness of her father and how she wants to leave, but I feel that with Eveline sitting at the window, contemplating an escape, she is hesitant about leaving. She is scared. It’s not that she has anything to lose, but she is afraid that there is nothing to gain. Will life be better with Frank? All of these apprehensions that Eveline faces can also be said and alluded to those who now face the inevitable change in the modern society.


With Imagists, Imagism, and Imagistic poetry in general, the goal was to write short, concise, and concentrated poetry that revealed some important insight or painted a picture of a brief moment in time. These poems had “the concentrated impact of a haiku,” as our book puts it. This was all in contrast to the “wordiness” of the eras of literature that directly preceded this movement. In fact, most of modernism was focused on the difficulties in coming up with something new, something fresh, or with depicting old stories in new ways. Joyce’s “Araby” can be seen as an augmented version of an Imagist’s poem, as the short story focuses on one revelatory moment of insight for the young narrator of the story. Joyce himself called these moments “epiphanies,” and relied on them for much of his literary work.

In “Araby,” the protagonist, if you can call it that of such a short story, is introduced to us without the background information and build up that was typical of the Victorian Era that came prior. We also don’t know anything about his young love except what is briefly told to us. And even this information isn’t helpful in the traditional sense: instead of getting a sense of her appearance or personality, we simply see her through the emotions and desires of the narrator. He tells us of how the light plays with her image, as “the light from the lamp opposite our door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and, falling, lit up the hand upon the railing” (2220). Not only does this talk about his mysterious lover, but it does so in a way that was typical of the metaphysical poet’s revival, brought about primarily by T.S. Eliot. Treating the light as a thing that can travel and “fall,” as if it were a concrete object, is an unusual thing, and through this Joyce shows that he is part of the Modernist movement. Also typical of Modernist prose and poetry is the ending of the story or poem without the feeling of resolution. Joyce does this with “Araby” as the protagonist doesn’t ever gain his true love, but neither does he get completely rejected by her. Instead, he is left in a sort of stupor as he suddenly sees himself “as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger” (2222). It is in the moment when the boy finally enters the bazaar and realizes just how childish his notions of love are, a sharp contrast from the one who stated that the rest of the world and his schoolwork was as “child’s play, ugly monotonous child’s play” (2220). Once again, it is in a single instant at the conclusion of the short story that the protagonist realizes all of this, and he is extremely dismayed about it.

James Joyce and Modern Poetry

What immediately struck me as poetic was Joyce’s use of personification, which was used a lot in Araby. One line in particular that caught my eye was “the other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces”. This also reminded me of when we talked about the city being a living thing itself in Eliot’s poem. Something that also made Joyce’s writing poetic was his detailed descriptions that were able to create an image for me, like with Eliot’s poem. This line in particular really seemed to do this: “The space of sky above us was the colour of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns”.

Also in common with Eliot’s poem was a sense of inaction and anxiety. In Eliot’s poem the man is unable to put himself out there and talk to the woman he likes, while worrying about he worthiness of her. In Araby, the young man is walking through a bazaar and stops at one of the stalls, but does not buy anything. Despite this, he still lingers in front of the stall knowing he still wont buy anything.

This same inaction and anxiety is seen even more in Eveline. She is a young woman who is supposed to be running off with a man to Buenos Ayres, but you can tell she is anxious about the whole thing throughout the poem and afraid to leave her family (which she promised her mother she would take care of). When it comes time to leave with him, he takes her hand but she clutches the railing and cannot bring herself to go with him.

Joyce “Araby”

Joyce’s short story “Araby” is filled with symbolic images of a church. It opens and closes with strong symbols, and in the body ofthe story, the images are shaped by the young), Irish narrator’s impres-sions of the effect the Church of Ireland has upon the people of Ire-land. The boy is fiercely determined to invest in someone within thisChurch the holiness he feels should be the natural state of all withinit, but a succession of experiences forces him to see that his determi-nation is in vain. At the climax of the story, when he realizes that hisdreams of holiness and love are inconsistent with the actual world,his anger and anguish are directed, not toward the Church, but to-ward himself as “a creature driven by vanity.” In addition to the im-ages in the story that are symbolic of the Church and its effect uponthe people who belong to it, there are descriptive words and phrasesthat add to this representational meaning.

James Joyce

James Joyce’s writing, although prose, has a very poetic quality.  Like many modernist poets, Imagism was a key element for Joyce.  As I read these two short stories, there were many places that struck me as particularly poetic, usually because of his treatment of images.  For instance, near the beginning of “Araby,” Joyce describes spending time outside in the evenings.  He writes, “When we met in the street the houses had grown sombre.  The space of sky above us was the colour of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns.  The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed” (2219).  This whole passage felt very poetic to me.  Joyce is so descriptive that he creates an image that, like much in modernist poetry, can stand on its own.

There were several places where the narrator describes Mangan’s sister, and also his feelings for her.  These places also seemed as if they could be poetry, rather than prose.  He writes, “Her dress swung as she moved her body and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side” (2219).  It’s a very simple, elegant description, that again seems to stand on its own.  The descriptions of the narrator’s own feelings seemed very poetic to me as well.  “Her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood” and “My body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.”  I was particularly intrigued by these similes, and thought them to be very poetic.  The image of the harp is easy to picture as it is, but it also creates the image of the effect the girl has upon the narrator.  There were other examples as well, but these were the ones that struck me as showing how Joyce’s writing embodied Imagism and was very poetic in his prose.


Imagism in Joyce’s “Araby”

“At nine o’clock I heard my uncle’s latchkey in the halldoor. I heard him talking to himself and heard the hallstand rocking when it had received the weight of his overcoat. I could interpret these signs.”

In this passage from Araby, Joyce exhibits a tendency to not say directly what he means, but rather, to intimate it through the use of images. The uncle is clearly drunk, but the fact that Joyce does not say the word “drunk” and instead elects to make it implicit is what makes the writing poetic. It is not flat-out narrative, but is a more sensuous style of writing.

The story is also exemplary of modern poetry in that it is told from a cerebral, first person perspective. Joyce rigorously sticks to the point of view of his character to further emphasize the distance he experiences at the beginning of the story between himself and the girl he longs for. In some ways, the main events of the story unfold in his mind only, as when “ I looked over at the dark house where she lived. I may have stood there for an hour, seeing nothing but the brown-clad figure cast by my imagination, touched discreetly by the lamplight at the curved neck, at the hand upon the railings and at the border below the dress.” Here, the only action taking place is an imagined action about an imagined person, relevant only to the narrator.


Joyce’s style of writing is extremely descriptive. It really attempts to paint a picture of the scene in the mind of the reader, and since these readings seem to be a critique on modernity, it seems to be very mocking. Joyce uses these descriptions to show just how bland and meaningless life is during this time period.

My favorite quote was when Joyce spoke of the houses that, “conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces” (2218). This seems to paint a picture of the ultimate mediocrity. These houses are aware of the “decent” lives that inhabit them but there is nothing special about them, they are merely average. And what’s more is that these houses have no character to them but rather stare at one another with unreadable expressions. This is just one example of the way in which Joyce uses poetic style as a critique.

Poetic Aspects of Araby

There were a couple of poetic aspects that stuck out to me as I read Araby: simile and personification. One example of the use of both of these is at the bottom of 2219, “But my body was like a harp, and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires”.

The use of simile is fairly obvious, but Joyce couples that with personification; endowing human like behaviors to non human objects or ideas. Her “words and gestures” being the abstract concepts, and “were like fingers running upon the wires” being the endowed living qualities. Joyce does continue to use these among other aspects throughout the piece.

Joyce, prose, and Modernist poetry

Much like Modernist poetry, James Joyce communicates a strong sense of unsettledness, alienation, inaction or uselessness, and an exhaustion with normal life. He also introduces images and leaves them to comment for themselves, much like the poetry of Eliot and Pound and other Modernists. Several images dropped in “Eveline” appear to mock and play upon the superficiality of traditions of middle-class society. Eveline is recollecting her childhood home and the first image recalled is that of the priest whose name “she had never found out” in an outdated, “yellowing photograph,” (2222) which hints the  ineffectiveness and shallowness of images of religious piety of those who claimed to be religious. Likewise, this picture was “hung on the wall above the broken harmonium beside the coloured print of the promises made to Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque” (2223), another religious image portrayed in trivialized light. These promises made to the Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque, sitting next to the broken harmonium, have proven just as broken as useless as this contraption.

The first paragraph of “Araby” contains personified description of houses, who “conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces” (2218), which not only comments upon the coldness of middle/upper-class society, but also mocks that society’s self-satisfied, arrogant nature and opinion of itself – these admirably “decent lives” of the residents. Another description highlighting this idea of coldness, alienating emptiness of modern society also celebrates the idea of the individual, the inward-looking self, common of much Modernist writing: “The high cold empty gloomy rooms liberated me” (2220). Conversely, this same sense of isolation and inward-looking also leads to the feeling of powerlessness and self-doubt. At the end of the section, he comes out of his endeavor at the bazaar unsuccessfully, having been quite ineffectual. The final lines are entirely inward-focused as he recognizes feelings of uselessness and superficiality: “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger” (2222). The story offers this final conflict, albeit a conflict of self, and offers no moral, lesson, or solution, but simply leaves it as a fact. The final lines of Eveline conclude with similar sentiments of irresolution as she decides simply not to act, not to follow through with her plan of liberation, entirely “passive, like a helpless animal” with an emptiness of emotion: “no sign of love, or farewell or recognition” (2225).

James Joyce and Modernism

What most stood out for me from the two modernist poems that we read for Monday’s class was a strong sense of alienation and anxiety which both of the poems expressed. This can be seen both in the speaker’s unwillingness to act on his emotions in, “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock,” and in the distant, inhuman way the speaker describes people seen while on the subway in, “In a Station of the Metro.” I also noticed this theme has a strong presence in James Joyce’s short stories, “Araby” and “Eveline.”

In “Araby,” after the protagonist finally goes to the bazaar in order to buy a gift, when asked if he wants to buy something he replies, “No, thank you.” (Pg. 2222) The story then ends with the line, “my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” (Pg. 2222) Here, the reader views a character whose anxiety has rendered him unable to act in modern society. The protagonist in Eveline suffers a similar anxiety. In the end of the story, Eveline is about to run off with Frank and start a new life, the story reads, “No! No! No! It was impossible. Her hands clutched the iron in frenzy. Amid the seas she sent out a cry of anguish!” (Pg. 2225) Here, the reader sees Eveline’s anxiety stopping her from pursuing the new life she so desperately wanted.

James Joyce

As I ponder the question at hand, the question for me is just what constitutes imagism and modern poetry?  Going to the textbook, it seems that with the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, some in the literary world were eager to bury an era along with the Queen. It took several years to see the distinguishing  elements emerge, but Ezra Pound seems to have significantly influenced how literature would then be written, and it seems to be nicely packaged into “’Make It New.’” (text 1925)  The writings of Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, and Einstein continued the modernity trend of questioning the status quo, but this time it shook the foundational principles in religious belief, in how man thinks, and in how the universe is ordered.  Add to that the continuing specter of war – Joyce’s Dubliners short stories were published just months before World War I began, and a few years before the Irish Rebellion erupted in 1916.

Making It New involved both imagism and modernism. According to the text, imagism was “a reaction against the expansive wordiness of Victorian Poetry.”  They tended to write “short spare poems embodying a revelatory image or moment.  The most memorable Imagist poems have the concentrated impact of a haiku.” (text 1930)  Modernism employed a revolution in “subject matter and often on the level of style.” (text 1928)  “The modern writer [had] to create new and appropriate values for modern culture, and a style appropriate to those values.” (text 1939)  That included an unpredictable and understated narrative, using “stream of consciousness” to reveal characters in a manner as erratic as human thought, and writing on several levels to preserve the artistic merit of the piece yet appeal to the growing middle class.

After all this, perhaps I can summarize Araby by taking my own stab at haiku:

Young man and Young girl

Oh! The anticipation

“Anguish and anger.”

Seriously, Joyce portrays a snapshot of a young boy infatuated with a neighbor girl who promises to buy her a gift at the bazaar coming up that weekend.  He fails at that task when extenuating circumstances intervene.

Joyce seems to have embraced the new ways of poetry in his prose. The meager story line fits the modernist mode. The story is told from the first person perspective of the young man.  The story progresses when we see what he sees (“her dress swung as she moved her body and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side.” (text 2219)) and we feel what he feels (“I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I would tell her of my confused adoration.”  (text 2219))   In the spirit of imagism, Joyce uses words sparingly in limited dialogue and even failing to name the main characters.

However, Joyce seems to revert to traditional poetic techniques such as personification (“The other houses of the street…gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces.” (text 2218)), similes (“My body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.”  (text 2219)), imagery (“We walked through the flaring streets, jostled by drunken men and bargaining women, amid the curses of labourers, the shrill litanies of shop-boys who stood on guard by the barrels of pigs’ cheeks, the nasal chanting of street-singers.” (text 2219)) internal rhyme and consonance (“The light from the lamp opposite our door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and, falling, lit up the hand upon the railing.”  (text 2220)).   I feel this enriches his story when combined with the new techniques.

NYC Subway Voice Reads Pound

This New York Times article about the guy who records announcements for the 7 train in NYC is really interesting. The Times sought requests from the reading public and had him record the ones they thought were good. My favorite is Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro.”


(Edit: His name is Bernie Wagenblast; I’m embarrassed now because I didn’t identify him initially and he commented here!)

Darwin and Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Our Society at Cranford has many points in common with Darwin’s theories. The most prevalent of Darwin’s theories that I saw was his “survival of the fittest” and that only the strong, “vigorous, healthy, and happy survive and multiply”. This can be seen in the Brown family. One of Captain Brown’s daughter is constantly described as sickly with a pained expression on her. Because of her ailment and lack of good health, she does not survive. Although, Brown’s other daughter Miss Jessie is described as looking “twenty shades prettier” in comparison to her sister. Also in the description of her features, it is noted that “she should live to a hundred” (clearly because she looks in good health). In the end, Miss Jessie survives, marries, and even has a daughter (multiplies).

After reading Darwin and while reading Gaskell’s story, I was constantly thinking about his theories on survival as the events of the story unravelled. And in the end I came to understand the story as being about a strong society of women (the best of the best) and when this new family (the Brown family) comes and joins the society, the family struggles to exist, and only the fittest of them survives.


Cranford’s Darwinian Society – Katie McElhaney

“Death was as true and as common as poverty; yet people never spoke about that, loud out in the streets. It was a word not to be mentioned to ears polite”

Cranford’s society is much like Darwin’s description of how society should be in regards to the inferiority of the poverty stricken portion of society. Darwin expresses that poverty in any society is a “great evil.” Cranford seems to be very superficial and made of rigid, useless societal norms. While Darwin does not go into societal norms in an extensive matter, I feel as though Cranford’s harsh society eludes to Darwin’s rigid concept of humanity regarding the lack of evolution in some species. I feel as though both pieces seem to have a disconnect of society as it really is. Are people poor and destitue because that is just their biological nature, or is it because of these societal norms that Darwin and the Cranford society present that keep people in that place.

Opinions on Gaskell in light of Darwin’s writings

I agree with much that has been said so far. It is apparent that in this little community of Cranford there are sure elements of a “survival of the fittest”, namely through the sure examples already presented in these posts.

Something I found fascinating, however, is the string of an anti-Social Darwinism. I find it interesting that these women, though filling a monetary and class span, pretend to be on somewhat equal terms. This is not of the same spirit of survival of the fittest. The women pretend the party at Mrs. Forrester’s is just as fine as if it were in a large mansion. They play into Forrester pretending she had nothing to do with the cakes, while in reality (and they all know it) , she had helped the servant make them. It’s a sort of community survival rather than separating the successful from the less fortunate of the class.

Another instance I found interesting was because Miss Barker loved her cow so, she created some ridiculous flannel covering to keep the creature alive. If this were strictly a survival of the fittest, the cow should have been left to die or put out of her misery. And while Captain Brown does suggest Miss Barker kill the cow, the idealism of survival of the fittest does not prevail here.

One other thing I wish to point out is that while there were no men in Cranford (other than Captain Brown), and the women seem to be successful on their own as well as the superior being, one of them remarks that she knows men are superior and would’t want to be considered superior as a woman. It find these little points very interesting juxtapositions to the obvious elements of social Darwinism at work within this short story.

Gaskell and Darwin

Charles Darwin and Elizabeth Gaskell are very much alike. From reading both of these authors, it becomes evident very quickly that they both have god complexes. There is an imperialistic tone in both writings in which the authors place themselves on a pedestal, suggesting that some humans are better than others. Gaskell portrays this when she writes “We did not know what to make of a man who could speak of poverty as if it was not a disgrace”. The character cannot comprehend a person who does not care about social status and almost characterizes this as an inhuman trait.

Another way in which the two are similar is in their survival of the fittest mentality. This is seen by Gaskell when she writes, “there should be open competition for all men; and the most able should not be prevented by laws or customs from succeeding best and rearing the largest number of offspring.” This is exactly how Charles Darwin feels. They both believe that the “most able” people should be able to reproduce as much as they want while preventing poor and less able people from reproducing. They both believe that high society and able humans are the future while the lower class needs to be more or less weeded out.

Helen Wallace: Comparison of Darwin and Gaskell

After reading “Our Society At Cranford” by Gaskell, I noticed some “Darwin-sitic” comparisons. In some of Darwin’s work from “Origin of Species”, Darwin speaks of “survival of the fittest”: being strong, having the courage to outsmart, as well as physically being the best. In Gaskell’s work, women have the strength and are perceived as the strongest (or “fittest”). There is a moment where the women really look like the power houses of the community, especially during the line, “A man…is so in the way of the house!” It shows a certain amount of ego as well as strength, coexisting within a woman, whereas typically, those kinds of qualities are shown among male leaders.

Social Darwinism is definitely prevalent right off the bat when it is stated: “All the holders of houses above a certain rent were women. If a married couple come to settle in the town, somehow the gentleman disappears; he is either fairly frightened to death by being the only man in the Cranford evening parties, or he is accounted for by being neighboring commercial town of Drumble, distant only twenty miles on a railroad.” Noting the word “disappears”, I think that the strength of men literally vanishes because of their weakness in the world. Giving women power at this time was still risqué and the fact these women had it all, says a lot. Each author (Darwin and Gaskell) is trying to prove a point that there will always be flaws within a society, but it is a matter of who is “fitter”, to determine who will succeed, grow and flourish as humans.

On the Society at Cranford

Charles Darwin, in his “Descent of Man,” discusses in some detail how his theory of man being evolved from some lowly organized creature accounts for our human notions of morality and belief in God today. As for morality, Darwin claimed that the foundation first lies in “the social instincts…and secondly, from his mental faculties being highly active and his impressions of past events extremely vivid” (1279). It is this concept of the influence of the society around mankind that we find here in Elizabeth Gaskell’s short story “Our Society at Cranford.” The women in the story all operate under the same notions of how it is not right to discuss poverty, and how each individual is focused primarily on their own needs and concerns, without investing much into the lives of others. This is simply how they have been raised and how they have acted all their lives, and it is not till the Browns enter town that some of those notions are altered significantly for the better because of the new influences surrounding them.

Another one of Darwin’s theories that manifested itself in the story was the concept of Social Darwinism: that being the notion that only the strong should survive and multiply, thus leaving the weaker beings behind for the overall good of mankind. This is evidenced in the tension between the two Brown sisters: one, the elder, was very ill and did not survive very long, while Miss Jessie had eyes that “were always lovely” and an “early bloom” that radiated when she was once again happy with a new husband. Because she was more physically apt to survive, as well as possessing the best character qualities (kindness, patience, gentleness), she was able to marry in the end and have a child, thus furthering her lineage and passing on all of the positive qualities that were inherent in her being. The elder sister died without passing on anything, and all of the other ladies in Crandford, or at least those talked about in the story, though they might not all have been sick, did not possess as good of a personality and were many of them much too prideful or selfish, so they also remained single.


Gaskell’s short story contains aspects that appear sympathetic to ideas presented in Darwin’s writings, although under less obvious terms. She covertly follows the Darwinist idea of the survival of the strongest and fittest, rather than the “inferior members of society” (1282), as evident in the death of the elderly, self-declared impoverished, Captain Brown. He fittingly sacrifices himself (though not intentionally) in the act of saving a younger, healthier child who was most likely the baby of a wealthier woman. The survival of the worthier members at the expense of the “less-worthy” follows along the lines of Darwin’s advice that the poor/inferior members of society refrain from marriage, out of sense of duty for the good of humanity so that those best fit to succeed will pass on their better genes, ideally “rearing the largest number of offspring” to the benefit of mankind (1282).

This appears again in the moderately un-tragic death of the older, weaker, and unhealthy Miss Brown and the survival and successful life of the younger, healthier, and “twenty shades prettier” (1436) sister, Jessie Brown. The story does not betray or imply the idea that these deaths were justified by the theories of Darwin, but are covered in the polite, charming picture of Cranford and its kindly townfolk which the narrator paints.

Darwin and Elizabeth Gaskell

I think there are several interesting places in Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Our society at Cranford” that reflect some of Darwin’s theories.  For example, Darwin writes that those who are poor should not marry and reproduce because this would only prolong and extend that poverty.  He also explains that the weak won’t survive.  As I read this story, I thought I found these ideas reflected in the writing.

Captain Brown is described as being poor, and “openly spoke about being poor- not in a whisper to an intimate friend, the doors and windows being previously closed, but in the  public street!” (1434).  Shortly after, Gaskell writes, “We did not know what to make of a man who could speak of poverty as if it was not a disgrace” (1435).  The fact that poverty is something that should be avoided even in speech suggests that the people of the town share a similar view as Darwin.  Although he was still called upon and interacted with the people of the town, it was clear that Captain Brown didn’t fit into the society as most people did, on account of both his poverty and his acknowledgement of that fact, and also because he was a man.  His eldest daughter is also very ill.  By the end of the story, both characters die.  Captain Brown is killed by a train and Miss Brown dies soon after hearing of the death of her father.  It seems to me that this reflects Darwin’s theories that those who are not fit to live within the society won’t live.  There is an element of natural selection and of “survival of the fittest” in this aspect of the story.


Darwin and Gaskell

The concept of social darwinism was prevalent in Gaskell’s “Our Society at Cranford”. I was actually a bit surprised at how straight-foward her ideas were expressed and followed Darwin’s idea of social order as the product of natural selection of those persons best suited.

Darwin explained “the advancement of the welfare of mankind is a most intricate problem” and that “there should be open competition for all men; and the most able should not be prevented by laws or customs from succeeding best and rearing the largest number of offspring.” Although Darwin was specifically speaking about marriage and children with the most able, his concept is very clearly seen in Captain Brown’s statements. Darwin proposed that nothing should limit the most able man for the betterment of society, and Captain Brown puts that into perspective. After Miss Betsy Barker falls into the lime pit, he says, “Get her a flannel waistcoat and flannel drawers, ma’am, if you wish to keep her alive. But my advice is, kill the poor creature at once.” His disregard for damaged human life because of the work and burden that it would put on another perfectly able person is a spitting image of social darwinism. 

That idea was prevalent throughout the entire short story. And I felt as though Gaskell satirizes the industrial world through the town of Cranford extremely well by utilizing Darwin’s ideas. 

Our Society at Cranford

In his writings, Darwin’s theories around evolution, natural selection, and sexual selection are commonly known as the survival of the fittest.  In part, it identifies the alpha male’s dominance over and competition for the strongest female in order to pass along the best traits that will ensure the continuation of the species.  But Darwin in Cranford?  The ladies would vigorously object, I’m sure.  But he does make his way in – at least with his ideas, not his person.

Elizabeth Gaskell chronicles the day to day life of the women in Cranford.  The men of the town are largely absent, leaving the women the freedom to live their lives without the sexual tension when men are around.  Gaskell naively asks, “What could they do if they were there?”  When Captain Brown moves into town and inserts himself into their society, the sexual tension erupts.  Using Darwinian terms, “The ladies of Cranford were already rather moaning over the invasion of their territories by a man.”  Captain Brown soon adapted “in the way of a tame man about the house” yet the women succumbed to instinct by quoting his opinions as authority, and recognizing his “excellent masculine common sense.”  When he attends one of their tea parties, the ladies respond thus: “ruffled brows were smoothed, [and] sharp voices lowered at his approach.”  When Gaskell pits the only two men in the town together in church, the two compete when they try to outsing each other:

          [Captain Brown] made the responses louder than the clerk- an old man with

          a piping feeble voice, who I think, felt aggrieved at the Captain’s sonorous bass, and

          quivered higher and higher in consequence. (pg 1436)

 While the story is recognized as an accurate portrayal of life in small town England in its day, Gaskell is also accurate in her representation of Darwin’s theories.  She seems to use the sexual tension as a humorous conflict to move the story along.