Gaskell and Darwin


      Though Elizabeth Gaskell’s work “Our Society at Cranford” is primarily the charming dramatization of an eccentric,  town striving to maintain their idyllic ways in the midst of the growing industrial world, it also carries strands of social Darwinism. As poverty is a key theme in Darwin’s theories, it is likewise a prevalent theme running through Gaskell’s work. However, while Darwin considers poverty a “great evil” that “tends to its own increase by leading to recklessness in marriage” the ladies of Cranford were apt to “overlook all deficiencies in success” and resolved themselves to the everyday struggles of poverty (Darwin 1282). While they saw poverty as a “vulgar fact,” the ladies of Cranford considered themselves “quite sufficient” without the interference of men in their lives, and found their spinster ways of “elegant economy” made them “very peaceful and satisfied” (Gaskell 1433,1434). 

       However social Darwinism  converges on the society of Cranford  when the young and likable Miss Jessie enters into a happy and fruitful marriage with the gentleman, Major Gordon. Her happy marriage serves as a contrast to the short, pain-filled  life of her sister, Miss Brown, and reflects Darwin’s theory of the  “survival of the fittest.” Miss Jessie’s successful marriage and motherhood also highlights the waning era of the aging spinsters of Cranford and suggests holes in their struggle of existence. While Darwin would meet the struggles of life and poverty displayed in the town of Cranford with harsh eugenics; Gaskell, on the other hand, is able to approach these same struggles of life with a soft touch filled with charm and humor.



Different from the World

Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Our Society at Cranford” is about a town that sets itself apart from the rest of the world.  It looks down on men and outsiders and has its own hierarchy.  This town is related to Darwin’s theory of evolution.  Just like the savages that Darwin encounters, the town is secluded from the rest of the world and consequently develops at a different, slower rate.  This is shown by difference in technology and clothes.  They disapprove of railroads and maintain their traditional clothing while the rest of the world is preoccupied with developing faster transportation and more fashionable appearances.  When Captain Brown comes to town, he says he has “obtained some situation on a neighboring railroad, which had been vehemently petitioned against by the little town.”  This occupation and his open attitude toward his family’s poverty sets him apart from the rest of the town.

                The social hierarchy of the town is also quite different from the rest of the world.  The town is governed by women as opposed to the rest of the world where men are in charge.  “Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women.”  So when Captain Brown comes to Cranford, he is immediately cast to the lower half of society.  His poverty reinforces his lower status.  Eventually the Captain grows on the women of the town and they start to like him.  When Elizabeth comes back to the town after a year of being away, she is surprised to learn that the Captain was “even admitted in the tabooed hours before twelve” to “discover the cause of a smoking chimney.”  This relates to social Darwinism because the women look down on the Captain because he is not like them.  He is a man, he calls on them before twelve, and he publicly announces his poverty.  These are all things that set him apart from the rest of the society.

Darwinian Theory At Work in Cranford

The similarities I found between Charles Darwin’s theories on evolution and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Our Society at Cranford, were surprising and at the same time bemusing. However, if I had not been looking for a likeness between the these literary works I doubt I would have ever remotely connected them. The first – and most obvious connection deals with Darwin’s thoughts on the survival of the fittest. The entire concept of the weak dying out and the strong subsisting is very present in Our Society at Cranford. The only member of the Brown family who survived the tale was Miss Jenkyns, who, when described appeared to be the most “desirable.” The narrator states, “I do not know whether she was pretty or not; but I liked her face, and so did everybody else.” Miss Jenkyns fate is contrasted with that of Miss Brown, who did not have a lengthy life because she was “defective.”

Next, Darwin’s thoughts on social echelons seemed to become the crux behind the entire Cranford tale. One of the main issues that the Brown family faces is the question of where they fit in the social hierarchy of Cranford. This problem becomes the focus of the tale which implodes when two of the family members die. Then, Miss Jenkyns sets their social standing to rights by having the youngest Brown daughter marry someone who in her equal in society which compliments Darwin’s ideas about marriage. Gaskell appears to have no qualms with punishing her characters for stepping outside of Darwinian theory (even if she wasn’t aware of that she was doing it when writing this story) and seems to restrict her characters to actions that are in line with what Darwin advocates. The characters who survive and succeed in this story are the ones who are described to be Darwinian theory personified.

Only the Cranfordians Survive in Cranford

Charles Darwin’s primary idea that powers his theory of evolution is the term “survival of the fittest.” In Elizabeth Gaskell’s Our Society at Cranford, the women living there lead uneventful and straightforward lives, “The Cranford ladies have only an occasional little quarrel, spirited out in a few peppery words and angry jerks of the head; just enough to prevent the even tenor of their lives from becoming too flat. Their dress is very independent of fashion” (1433). A strong theme with the town of Cranford is their ability to maintain, or “survive,” with this way of life for so long. The “weakness” of poverty, so that they might retain their sense of aristocracy, is an important way of life for Cranford’s inhabitants, “The Cranfordians had that kindly espirit de corps which made them overlook all deficiencies in success when some among them tried to conceal their poverty” (1434). However, Captain Brown introduces a new dynamic to the town.

The narrator writes of Captain Brown, “I never shall forget the dismay felt when a certain Captain Brown came to live at Cranford, and openly spoke about his being poor-not in a whisper to an intimate friend, the doors and windows being previously closed, but in the public street! in a military voice!” (1434). Captain Brown has rejected the norm of concealing poverty and trying to be of noble stature, let alone being a man. Miss Jenkyns however, one of the most respected members of Cranford. She has servants working for her, delicate china and polished silver, and an extensive library. Miss Jenkyns may be physically frail, but she is perfectly fit to survive in the society that Cranford has created. She and Captain Brown even have a large argument over Charles Dickens and Samuel Johnson’s literary works. In the end, Captain Brown is no more after “reading some new book” (1443), while Miss Jenkyns remains. She even marries Miss Jessie Brown, his daughter, to assimilate her and her child Flora into Cranfordian society, “Did you ever read the Rambler? It’s a wonderful book-wonderful! and the most improving reading for Flora” (which I dare say it would have been, if she could have read half the words without spelling, and could have understood the meaning of a third), “better than that stranger old book, with the queer name, poor Captain Brown was killed for reading-that book by Mr Boz” (1447).

Both Charles Da…

Both Charles Darwin and Elizabeth Gaskell provoke the idea of a sort of social order throughout each of their writings. We are able to infer through out Darwin’s theories and “Our Society at Cranford” that both authors felt as though they were somewhat superior to the inferior man. Darwin is quick to point out that not all man are created with equality and that because of this there are those who are considered to be “inferior” and those who possess “greater” qualities. Gaskell also touches on the idea of a social order when she makes the comment “What does it signify how we dress here at Cranford where everybody knows us?” (page 1433). Her description of being well known throughout her community emphasizes the idea of having a social order. This idea is very prominent in our culture today and the way in which our society is discriminatory towards those who are considered to be different from us. 

Limits of Civilization

I believe that Elizabeth Gaskell would agree with Charles Darwin’s opinion that civilization and formality inhibit human achievement.  When on the voyage of the Beagle, Darwin observes the behavior of Fuegian natives and how they react to his party.  He takes note that they are “excellent mimics,” (Darwin 1264) which reminds him of what he has heard of other uncivilized cultures such as the Caffres and the Australians.  Darwin concludes that these “practiced habits of perception and keener senses [are] common to all men in a savage state, as compared with those long civilized” (Darwin 1264).  This fact leads him to believe that civilization has a negative effect on humans by limiting their natural abilities.  In Gaskell’s work, “Our Society at Cranford,” she tells an anecdote of how a male figure (which is unusual for their very formal and ladylike town) changes the civilized views of one of the most honorable women in the town, Miss Jenkyns.  An example that Gaskell presents of the dispute between Captain Brown and his unorthodox ways and Miss Jenkyns and her customs is when Captain Brown helps a poor old woman carry her dinner.  Captain Brown did this out of the kindness of his heart ignoring the town’s customs which would have required him not to interact with the poor old woman and not help her carry the dinner.  When the women of the town talked about this incident, they decided that he should be confronted for his “eccentric” behavior (Gaskell 1439).  After Captain Brown dies saving the life of a child, Miss Jenkyns takes in his daughter and even defends the daughter’s unorthodox ways of being courted by a man.  Although once “a model of feminine decorum,” Miss Jenkyns admits that she has changed (Gaskell 1447).  She now realized the limits that the conventional ways placed on this little town of Cranford having her eyes opened to what they lacked: Captain Brown’s kindness.  Darwin’s life is an example of what can be lost to formality.  He viewed his formal education as a waste and did not truly begin to learn until he was the naturalist on the Beagle (Darwin 1260).  Only then did he truly begin to learn and later publish his ideas on the origin of man.  Both Gaskell and Darwin realized that an individual’s true potential, whether it be kindness or observation, was limited given civilization and formality.

“Our Society at Cranford”

Elizabeth Gaskell’s work, “Our Society at Cranford” can be compared to Darwin’s theories of survival of the fittest as well as his pervasive attitude of superiority over the Fuegians. The women of Cranford pride themselves on being aristocratic and on practicing “elegant economy” (1434). They view themselves as much better than the outside, vulgar, and industrialized world. This is in direct correlation to the way that Darwin viewed the natives of the regions which he visited as inferior. Darwin even looked down upon the civilized native, Jemmy Button, who he really quite liked. In “Our Society at Cranford” the women come to accept and like Captain Brown over time, but that does not mean that they view him as their equal. Upon hearing of his death, Miss Jenkyns cries out ” ‘Poor, dear, infatuated man!’ “, demeaning him and his interest in Dickens even after he has passed away (1444).

In fact, Captain Brown’s death is an example of survival of the fittest. The reason for his death is attributed to his interest in “Pickwick,” something viewed as vulgar by the esteemed ladies of Cranford. His inelegance of taste leads to his downfall. This connection reinforces the fact that all the rules and decorum of Cranford ensure the safety and survival of the population. Those who are well adjusted and accustomed to their regulations thrive as citizens, while those who are not well adjusted, inevitably suffer.

Social Hierarchy: Darwin and Gaskell

Darwin’s theory of social hierarchy and survival of the fittest is prevalent throughout “Our Society at Cranford” by Elizabeth Gaskell. In “Our Society at Cranford”, the ones who know the game of society the best, survive the scene. The elder ladies ruled Cranford, and to survive you had to abide by their rules. Men had no place in this society, as shown in Gaskell’s words, “In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons”(Gaskell, 1432). So when, Captain Brown comes into town and tries to integrate himself into the town, he causes sparks. And though he is there for a while, he ultimately meets his demise, followed by his daughter. The Brown family caused trouble to the natural ecosystem of Cranford but when two of the family members die, Miss Jenkyns takes the opportunity to put the social hierarchy right, by having the second Brown daughter marry her equal in status. This would satisfy Darwin’s theories on marriage and also prove his ideas about the social hierarchy and its fluctuations are correct. Gaskell’s writing also shows the influence of social Darwinism and how the concept of the proper place in society influenced other writers. 

Survival of the Prettiest

A similar theme in both Darwin’s theory and Gaskell’s fiction is “survival of the fittest”. Both of these works feature the animalistic side of humanity by showing the main goal of people is to survive and multiply. In, “Our Society of Cranford” the only surviving member of the Brown family was Miss Jenkyns. It is not merely a coincidence that she is the most attractive member of the family and the most likeable. According to Darwin, Miss Brown did not live a long and fruitful life because she was defective. Both Gaskell and Darwin illustrate the superiority of Miss Jenkyns to her sister because she was neither sickly nor unattractive. Darwin states, “The advancement of the welfare of mankind is a most intricate problem: all ought to refrain from marriage who cannot avoid abject poverty for their children.” He also says that “Both sexes ought to refrain from marriage if in any marked degree inferior in body or mind.” Darwin would approve of Miss Jenkyns marriage because of the status of Major Gordon and the attractiveness of each of them. Miss Jenkyns is described as “Her eyes were large blue wondering eyes, looking straight at you; her nose was unformed and snub, and her lips were red and dewy; she wore her hair too, in little rows of curls, which heightened this appearance. I do not know whether she was pretty or not; but I liked her face, and so did everybody.” Both the ladies of Cranford and Darwin chose to only consider the shallow aspect of life, how things look, not how they really are, a trademark of social darwinism.

Charles Darwin and Elizabeth Gaskell

Having read Charles Darwin’s “The Voyage of the Beagle” and knowing about his attitudes and believes about human nature, evolution, and natural selection and then reading Elizabeth’s Gaskell’s “Our Society at Cranford” one can see some of the similar prevailing attitudes of the times.  It is interesting to note how from before Darwin’s time even until now we judge a group of people by the way they dress compared to us to deduce whether this group of people have assimilated to the current civilized culture or not.  We can also guess that Charles Darwin would certainly apply his theory of evolution on the people of Cranford it he was reading Elizabeth’s Gaskell’s story.

Charles Darwin speaks of having met the Fuegians and almost right away compares the way they dress to the way he dresses and since its so different from him they must then be savages and animals.  He says “I could not have believed the difference between savage and civilized man: it is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal, inasmuch as in man there is greater power of improvement…Their only garment consists of a mantle of guanaco skin, with the wool outside; this they wear just thrown over their shoulders, leaving their persons as often exposed as covered.”  Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Our Society at Cranford” does the same when saying “Their dress is very independent of fashion…The materials of their clothes are, in general, good and plain, and most of them are nearly as scrupulous as Miss Tyler, or cleanly memory, but I will answer for it, the last gigot, the last tight and scanty petticoat in wear in England, was seen in Cranford – and seen without a smile.”  It’s interesting to note that we still have this practice of judging others according to what they wear.  If someone doesn’t have the latest fashions they must be poor, do not care of how the look, perhaps they come from a “third world” country.  Or what of Western woman seeing Middle Eastern women and they way they dress as being oppressed by the opposite sex and their government?

If Charles Darwin was reading “Our Society at Cranford” he would more than likely apply his theories on evolution.  Since most people are not wealthy in Cranford as Elizabeth Gaskell explains in her story “We none of us spoke of money, because that subject savoured of commerce and trade, and though some might be poor, we were all aristocratic,” and the fact that there were no men as the story says “…Cranford is in possession of the Amazons…whatevers does become of the gentleman, they are not at Cranford,” in Darwin’s eyes they are not reproducing and will surely die off as they are not fit to continue.

A Clash of Class

A great similarity between Charles Darwin’s writings in “The Voyage of the Beagle” and Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Our Society at Cranford” is the superiority of certain race, social class, and sexes. Charles Darwin writes of the Fuegians, relating them to himself saying, “I could not have believed how wide was the difference between savage and civilized man: it is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal” (1263). This idea of the savage man being “inferior” can be related to Gaskell’s view on the men being “so in the way in the house” (1433). The differences between the social positions in each story seem to relate in many ways. Their “rankings” and differences were always immediately obvious and shown to the reader, much like when Gaskell tells us that the Brown trio’s place in poverty which they “had spoken simply and openly about” or when Captain Brown comes into town and “spoke openly about his being poor (1434,1439).

These similaririties help understand how Gaskell’s sequestered society, which struck me as being almost desirably utopian-like, (except of course for the major differences in the classes) relates to Darwin’s journey to the Galapagos Islands far off the coast of South America.

Social Conscience in Cranford and Darwin

The most outstanding contrast between “Our Society at Cranford” and the excerpts from Dickens is that Elizabeth Gaskell’s narrator seems to have a much sharper social and human conscience than Darwin. Where he seems to think that everything should be oriented towards the advancement of society, regardless of the victims, she displays the emotional and compassionate nature of humanity that is to be praised and not weeded out at all. At times, Gaskell’s Captain Brown even seems to be somewhat representative of Darwin, particularly in the case of Miss Betsy Barker’s Alderney cow.  The cow falls into a lime-pit, where she loses most of her hair (Gaskell 1435). Upon her rescue, the sharp contrast is revealed, for where all the women of Cranford show pity (mingled with humor) for Miss Baker and her cow, Captain Brown suggests that she “kill the poor creature at once” (Gaskell 1435). Such a harsh take on life, while completely juxtaposed with the niceties and pageantry displayed by the ladies of Cranford, slides in perfectly with a Darwinian approach to life, Darwin’s opinion being that if one is a blemish to the species or the society, one should give up all hope, and definitely not burden everyone else by procreating.

There is, however, one way in which Darwin and the ladies at Cranford coincide. They all agree that one must have a strong social conscience, and any less is, in Darwin’s view, lower than savagery. For even they, whom he flippantly compares to a monkey or baboon, perform acts of an altruistic nature. Of course, the women at Cranford would most likely not agree to being considered as little “better than a dog” (Darwin 1290), they have very strict social rules which require politeness and courteousness at all times. When a weak servant girl needs help carrying a tray, the mistress does it, and everyone in the room pleads ignorance. When the cow loses all its hair, and goes to the field in flannel, they accept it and move on. When paying a visit, and here the rules are especially strict, one must never stay longer than a quarter of an hour, and never wait longer than three days to return a visit. In these small ways, and often larger ways, like showing the Brown women kindness after the death of their father, the society at Cranford demonstrates a strong social conscience that is as necessary and inalienable (as well as beneficial) as any harsher conscience (like eugenics) theorized by Darwin.

A Similarity Between “Our Socienty at Cranford” and Charles Darwin

The isolated town of Cranford, with its unique fashions, behaviors, and trends is an echo of Darwin’s theory of how things will develop differently if they are allowed to develop independently from everything else, such as how the tortoises are different on each of the Galapagos Islands.

“Their dress is very independent of fashion” (page 1433), is a good example of how things vary in Cranford from normal society.  They also have their own ideas of what is culturally acceptable, such as when making or receiving a call, “…never let… more than three days elapse between receiving a call and returning it; and also, that you are never to stay longer than a quarter of an hour” (page 1433).

The women of Cranford have very strict social rules, and tend to be taken aback by anyone from the outside that do not follow such rules, such as when Captain Brown announces his poverty loudly one day in the street.  This reminds me of Darwin’s reactions to the Fuegian natives and the ways in which they differed from his own society in regards of clothing or behavior.  It seems to me that the negative reaction of Miss Jenkyns to Captain Brown’s openness is similar to the negative reaction of Darwin to seeing how few clothes the natives wore, or other matters of their appearances.

The Town of Cranford in Darwin’s Eyes.

Gaskall writes a fictional story of a town called Cranford, in which the ideas parallel with Darwin’s theories of natural selection and evolution. In the town of Cranford, there are plenty of lower-class individuals that are somewhat oblivious to the outside world. There is a certain tone that can be taken from the story, that relates to Darwin’s theory of natural selection. The characters in the story have relationships with each other that are only relevant to the people in the town. As Darwin expressed, the individuals who are not as fit for survival will not flourish in the world. The ideas of Darwin can be seen when nothing outside the town of Cranford is talked about. The only issues being developed are small instances that appear to be significant events in these individual’s lives. “There had been neither births, deaths, nor marriages since I was there last. Everybody lived in the same house, and wore pretty nearly the same well-preserved, old-fashioned clothes.” (1441). The expressions of these individual’s portray a significant message that can be interepreted in such a way that display a lack of care for the problems of the outside world.

The differences among the rich and the poor also seem to have a relationship to Darwin’s theory. The poor do not seem to have much at all, nor do they have relationships with the rich; except for possible interaction for work. The poor, in this particular story, are similar to Darwin’s examples explaining a lack of survival skills in nature. In the town of Cranford, it appears that money is the most influential and effective “skill” to have for survival. Captain Brown, a poor man, is an example of how money can determine one’s status in the town of Cranford. “‘Why, you see, unless Captain Brown has some reason for it, he never speaks about being poor; and he walked along by his lordship looking as happy and cheerful as a prince; and as they never called attention to their dinner by apologies, and as Miss Brown was better that day, and all seemed bright, I dare say his lordship never knew how much care there was in the background. He did send game in the winter pretty often, but now he is gone abroad.” (1442). The idea in Cranford seems to be that there social classes that translate into the idea of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and survival of the fittest. The rich will survive and flourish; the poor will work for the rich or have no effect on the rich individual’s lives. However, the rich will know nothing outside of their own lives, because of the lack of excitement in their lives.

Elizabeth Gaskell vs. Charles Darwin

Although the works we read by Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Darwin differed greatly, there are two aspects of Gaskell’s “Our Society at Cranford” that parallel with Darwin’s theories. The first has to do with poverty, while the second deals with adaptation and the “struggle for existence”. We can compare the characters and descriptions of Cranford with Darwin’s accounts of the Fuegians to expand our understanding of the theories that the authors are addressing.

Gaskell’s narrator claims that the inhabitants of Cranford “never spoke of money, because that subject savoured of commerce and trade, and though some might be poor, they were all aristocratic” (1434). The exception to this unwritten rule, however, was Captain Brown (the only male living in Cranford) who openly discussed being poor with other members of the town. The narrator goes on to say how uncomfortable this made the women feel and compared the discussion of money with that of death. This attitude about poverty goes hand in hand with Darwin’s idea that “poverty is not only a great evil, but tends to its own increase by leading to recklessness in marriage” (1282). Both authors feel that poverty, while relevant, should be ignored and left to deal with by those who it directly affects.

Captain Brown and his family not only give Gaskell the opportunity to address her feelings on poverty, but also how she felt about the struggle for existence and adaptability. Like the Fuegians, those who lived in Cranford had to learn to adapt to their surrounds in order to survive. As in every situation like this though, some will prevail more than others. Captain Brown was described as assuming “the man’s place in the room as if it were a matter of course for the strong to attend to the weak” (1437). The weak here being represented by the women of Cranford as well as Captain Brown’s sick daughter, Miss Brown. Miss Brown later dies and it is revealed that she was “holding back” her healthy sister, Miss Jessie, from marriage and a family of her own. This situation, while unfortunate, underlines Darwin’s theory that “as more individuals are produced than can possibly survive, there must in every case be a struggle for existence” (1274). Although these theories on poverty, adaptation, and the fight to survive were presented in very different ways, both Gaskell and Darwin seem to share the same ideas on what would make an individual the most successful in a society.

Darwinism in Fiction : “Our Society at Cranford”

Darwin is an interesting character. His views on natural and sexual selection and evolution, especially as expressed in the The Descent of Man excerpt we read, seem blunt, verging on offensive during the time period, and “in-your-face,” to use a modern colloquialism. None of that, however, is seen in Gaskell’s “Our Society at Cranford.” Darwinist theories, if truly displayed with any intention and not simply because the ideas of the time accidentally influenced the majority of writers from that period onward, are hidden beneath a veil of humanity and queer society, and, to be perfectly frank, I was not even sure for what to search.

What I thought was interesting, and possibly telling to the idea of natural selection, is that “Cranford is in possession of the Amazons” (1432). Ladies are the prime population of the little town, and the only man mentioned for any lengthy period is Captain Brown, whom settles within the town and lives out his life rather happily. Perhaps, Gaskell is using Darwin’s theory of natural selection to describe the quaint, dated society in which they live; that it is not reproducing, and will eventually die out.

I discovered something similar in the death of Captain Brown, which, after the lively and brilliant descriptions of his kindness and character, upset me deeply. On page 1438, Miss Jenkyns and Captain Brown have quite the dispute over which author is better: Samuel Johnson (“Dr. Johnson”) or Charles Dickens (“Mr. Boz”). No concrete conclusion is reached on whom is better, though the debate, in which Brown asserts that Johnson’s style is “pompous writing” (1438), sparks some animosity between the two for some time. With Brown’s tragic death, however, Miss Jenkyns seems to drop her previous objections to the man, and is exceptionally kind to both of his daughters.

It is not within Miss Jenkyns’ actions that I found a point of interest, however, but rather, within their argument. The Pickwick Papers, the work by Dickens of which Brown is in favor, is humorous, witty, and an entertaining read, while Johnson’s work Rasselas is serious, moral, and philosophical. I found it interesting that Brown died while reading the Pickwick Papers, though Miss Jenkyns, who reads Rasselas, lives on into her old(er) age. There seems to be a comment here on the idea of “survival of the fittest,” for, while Captain Brown was certainly more physically fit for survival than Miss Jenkyns, she may have been more mentally fit, a quality that is becoming steadily more important amongst civilized society. This says something about the adaptability of the human race; while Darwin assumes that natural selection and survival of the fittest are applied in a physical sense (he is most capable of tilling a field or hefting bales of hay is more qualified for survival than he who tills metaphorical fields within the mind and hefts books), this idea that man’s continued survival depends on his moral, ethical, and philosophical prowess is certainly interesting.



Darwinism applied to Cranford

One aspect of Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Our Society at Cranford” that rhymes a bit with Darwin’s theories is adaptations made by the women of Cranford in order to survive. Gaskell makes it exceedingly clear that Cranford is not a wealthy town, and as such, the inhabitants must make do with what they have. As the narrator says, “If we walked to or from a party, it was because the night was so fine, or the air so refreshing, not because sedan-chairs were expensive,” (1434). This is, in a sense, similar to the way Darwin describes the Fuegians who somehow managed to adapt to the sometimes-miserable climate in which they live. In Chapter 10 of The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin describes a group of Englishmen and natives sitting around a fire. While the Englishmen are fully clothed and still quite cold, the natives are “streaming with perspiration at undergoing such a roasting,” (1268). Though the two groups, the women of Cranford and the Fuegians, live in radically different ways, they still must adapt to their situations in order to survive.

Another piece of “Cranford” that intrigued me was the fact that there are no men in the town. While the women may enjoy the fact that they can live uninterrupted from the annoyances of men, this way of life can only lead the town’s demise. Obviously, if there are no men, there are also no children being born to continue the existence of the town. Since this town is rather poor, Darwin would probably agree with this decision made by the women. After all, he says in The Descent of Man, “all ought to refrain from marriage who cannot avoid abject poverty for their children” (1282). Instead of resources being spent on a small poor town like Cranford, Darwin would like to see them in the hands of stronger people who could lead the human race toward perfection.

Looking at “Our Society at Cranford” through the lens of Darwinism makes for an interesting read. I couldn’t simply accept the town of Cranford as a quirky place filled with quirky people. Instead I saw it as a doomed town where the inhabitants nevertheless attempt to adapt to their surroundings. I honestly don’t much like this way of analyzing a piece of literature. For me, it takes away from the humane sensitivity and honesty that made this story a compelling and touching read.



When reading Gaskell’s text, I did see a lot of tension between the modern era and the older way of thinking and doing in Cranford. However, I do not think that I would have noticed similarities between Gaskell’s text and Darwin’s theories if I was not looking for them. The first thing that I noticed when examining the text with Darwin in mind was the similarity between Gaskell’s descriptions of the town and its inhabitants Darwin’s descriptions of the Fuegians. There is an observing, objective element to the descriptions given of Cranford, as if the narrator were a kind of naturalist. There are several phrases that really drive the sense of a naturalist describing what she sees home, such as: “there were certain rules and regulations for visiting and calling (1433).” Furthermore, we later learn that the narrator is a visitor to the town, not one of its proper inhabitants, just as Darwin was a visitor to the natives whose cultures he described.

The main point in the text in which Gaskell seems to directly address one of Darwin’s theories is her description of the relationship between Captain Brown, Miss Jessie, and the sickly Miss Brown. Darwin wrote about the “Struggle for Existence” which included “…not only the life of the individual, but success in leaving progeny (1273).” The end result of this struggle is that “…the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply (1277).” However, Miss Brown, one of the weaker individuals in the evolutionary struggle serves as an impediment and a drain on Captain Brown and Miss Jessie, who are more fit individuals. In particular, she wrecks her fitter sister’s chances to have children and a life of her own.

In her life, “Miss Brown used to accuse herself, not merely of hast and irritable temper, but also of being the cause why her father and sister were obliged to pinch, in order to allow her the small luxuries which were necessaries in her condition (1439).” This shows a sense of uneasiness that her own weakness and wasting illness is the cause of distress to the stronger, healthier members of her family. Furthermore, it is revealed that Miss Brown is the reason that Miss Jessie, who is, by all accounts, an exceedingly healthy and able individual, has not married and had children. Miss Brown shows remorse for holding her sister back on her deathbed, saying: “How selfish I have been! God forgive me for letting you sacrifice yourself for me as you did! (1445).” After her sister’s death, Miss Jessie is able to marry, and has a child, demonstrating her fitness to live, be happy, and leave offspring. I am unsure whether Gaskell is agreeing with Darwin’s theories of evolution or not, but she has certainly painted a subtle picture of the strong being held back by a sense of duty to their weaker kindred.

The Importance of Culture

In his poem “Dover Beach,” Matthew Arnold talks about his disapproval of the world.  He sees a beautiful land with the potential to bring happiness to all “like a land of dreams”, but it ends up leaving us “swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight.”  He says this in relation to his view on the world and its lack of culture.  Arnold disapproves of the machinery and hatred found in the world, as can be seen in his essay, “Culture and Anarchy.”

In “Culture and Anarchy,” Arnold uses the themes of curiosity, culture, and sweetness and light to display what is wrong with the world (particularly England) and what needs to be changed.  He starts by describing what is wrong with the word “curiosity” when he points out that the “English do not, like the foreigners, use this word in a good sense as well as in a bad sense.”  Arnold says people mistakenly relate the word “curiosity” with the word “culture,” thus giving the second a bad connotation.  This is a problem for him considering culture is his solution to what is wrong with the world.  Arnold says “Culture is then properly described not as having its origin in curiosity, but as having its origin in the love of perfection, it is a study of perfection.”  It is not just “the scientific passion, the sheer desire to see things as they are,” but a view where things like the “desire for removing human error” and “the impulses towards action” make the world a better place.  It pursues a sweetness and light, as opposed to machinery and hatred.  These ideas are expressed in his poem “Dover Beach.”

Arnold’s Modernity : Dover Beach and Culture and Anarchy

Modernity. A simple word with a taken for granted definition. “That which is modern,” one would say. Well, what defines modern? The word “modernity” encompasses the contemporary times of about the eighteenth century up into the twenty first, approximately three hundred some years. During all of this time, much has changed, but this sense of modernity has stayed constant, due to the continued effects of its causes: capitalism; a rise in the interest of science, reason, and logic; the industrial revolution; an increase in literacy; greater personal wealth; and, later on, the effects of World War I. Disregarding the disastrous global conflict, these other factors contribute heavily to the ideas of Victorian times, and such influences are seen in the works of Matthew Arnold.
One of these great ideas that is found in both his works “Dover Beach” and Culture and Anarchy is the ideas of science, reason, and logic, associated with the ideas of the ancient Greeks, and generally in opposition to the idea of religious ideas. Hellenism, as Arnold called it, a word that encompassed the entirety of scientific thinking. Arnold says “The uppermost idea with Hellenism is to see things as they really are” (1601), a clear indication that Hellenism is based in the idea of fact, of observable, objective ideas. Science, logic, reason, particularly associated with Greek thought, the ancients who are said to have founded Western culture. Hellenism, when combined with Hebraism, based in Judeo-Christian ideals, which states that one must be in total control over their body, are in opposition to one another. Hebraism is what Arnold sees as the old ways of conducting oneself according to strict morality, perhaps in accordance with  religious ideals. Hellenism, however, seems to be the greater praised of the two, and most likely because it roots itself in scientific theory.

In the Victorian era, the idea of evolution and baby steps in to the information age overwhelmed the Victorians, and they felt the need to reconcile these new ideas with their current beliefs, and slowly the world began secularizing itself. This is mentioned in the poem “Dover Beach,” when the focus is drawn away from a tragic Greek writer to the sea, we are given a stark and lonely picture of the “Sea of Faith,” in which it:

“Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore / Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.  But now I only hear / Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, / Retreating, to the breath / Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear / And naked shingles of the world.”
The idea of secularization, or rather, nostalgia for a time gone by, is evident in these two works. Considering that people had once thought that the bug scurrying across the floor was “divine providence,” but no longer.

The Conflicting Viewpoints of Matthew Arnold

In reading “Dover Beach” and “Culture and Anarchy” together I was first and foremost impressed with Matthew Arnold’s range as a writer. Arnold takes the two sides of one issue and argues both ways of thought rather well, which unfortunately is where my main issue with these works of literature begins. Reading the pieces side by side paints Arnold as an unconvinced zealot whose opinions on modernity seem almost bi-polar as times.

His first thoughts on modernity are seen in “Dover Beach”  where he speaks as one in love with nature (sweet is the night air / from the long line of spray / where the sea meets the moon-blanched land), fascinated by spirituality (the sea of faith / was once too at the full / and round the earth’s shore) and deeply convinced that the lives of the ancients were in some way superior to any modern experience (Sophocles long ago / heard it on the Aegean).  These romantic notions stand in stark contrast to his brash and disillusioned way of speaking in “Culture and Anarchy.” 

In the ten years between “Dover Beach” and “Culture and Anarchy” it is my opinion that Arnold grew into somewhat of a modernist. He champions modern culture (through culture seems to lie our way, not only to perfection, but even to safety), rejects a great deal of religious ideals (it is not that Hellenism is always for everybody more wanted than Hebraism, but that it is more wanted), and the majority of the piece is focused on the examinations of modern culture rather than any remarks about nature.

Where I grow troubled as a reader is in noticing that Arnold defends both ideals incredibly well. This creates a lack of confidence in his actual convictions. For instance, if Arnold is merely arguing these issues and is saying whatever is necessary to prove his point, then of what value are his opinions? Unfortunately, I can find no indication that he supports one ideal over the other and must retire that query for another time.

Matthew Arnold

Matthew Arnold does not seem to be very enthusiastic about technological progression.  To him, the new, modern, world is confusing and possibly intimidating.  In “Dover Beach,” he laments the diminishing “Sea of Faith” (1562), and can hear its “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” (1562). The confusion he goes on to mention in “Culture and Anarchy” may also be related to this loss of faith, hinting that people may be wondering what they should believe in.

In “Culture and Anarchy,” Arnold seems to feel as though new machinery goes against the natural order of things when he says, “This contravention of the natural order has produced, as such contravention always must produce, a certain confusion and false movement, of which we are now beginning to feel, in almost every direction, the inconvenience” (1601).  He feels as though everything is falling to confusion, and goes on to suggest: “We can only get [order and authority] by going back upon the actual instincts and forces which rule our life…” (1601)

Modernity and Matthew Arnold

In his most famous works, Matthew Arnold underlines a theme of a spiritual withdrawal from the modern world. In his poem, “Dover Beach”, he represents his dissapointment in that which the modern world has begun to produce. Arnold embodies the modern world by representing it as “swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night” (Arnold 1562). Matthew Arnold views the changes of modernity with uncertainty, instability, and fragmentation of human psyche in the face of religious doubt and modernity itself. This uncertainty reflects through his description of the “ignorant armies” that he greatly hopes to avoid being a part of.

In one of his most well known pieces, “Culture and Anarchy” , Matthew Arnold examines each of what he considers the three classes of England to determine its fitness as a center of authority and source of light. This piece establishes a more direct resolution to the conflict of the continuously modernizing world. Through this work, Arnold’s “liberal humanism” is highly obvious. He views religion as a terrible choice for the facilitation of human perfection. He sees these ideals from the organized religious groups as “narrow and inadequate”(Arnolda 1596). His ideal world has less of a focus on the disruption that religious groups bring, and more focus on the preservation of the important ideals.


Matthew Arnold and Modernity

In Matthew Arnold’s writings, we see this fascination with the concept of modernity, particularly in the idea that the new replaces the old. This idea of replacement is the central focus of modernity and because of this Arnold focuses on it. In “Dover Beach”, Arnold toys with this idea of replacement by mentioning a great dramatist, of a long burnt out culture that the British replaced. Arnold is trying to make the British people see that change is always on the horizon and in order to keep their British ways they must keep up with this replacement. Arnold also toys with this idea of replacement by talking about the key struggle during this time, that of Faith versus Science, and the idea that science will replace faith. “The Sea of Faith/Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore/lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled./But now I only hear/Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” (Arnold, 1562). With this struggle, he is demonstrating to the British people that Science will replace Faith and he is urging them to keep up with the pace. 

In Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, this idea of replacement is prevalent. Arnold is trying to make the British people understand that this new system that has replaced the old, this exploration of freedom and of how machine-like they are, has changed their culture and thought process. It has made society more focused on the personal liberties and how they should be upheld. This is demonstrated in a selection of Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy “The moment it is plainly put before us that a man is asserting his personal liberty, we are half disarmed; because we are believers in freedom, and not in some dream of a right reason to which the assertion of our freedom is to be subordinated”(Arnold, 1599). Arnold wants the British people to be aware of these changes to British society and notice how these new ideas interact with the old. Arnold also wants the people to examine this idea of the new replacing the old and how that might play into their lives as an individual, and as a collective whole.


Arnold and Modernity

Matthew Arnold attacks the condition of the modern world, or modernity, in “Culture and Anarchy.” He lectures that in modernity the motive for culture is simply something that “is valued either out of sheer vanity and ignorance or else as an engine of social and class distinction, separating its holder, like a badge or title, from other people who have not got it” (1595). However, this is not what culture should be. Culture should be propelled by “the desire to augment the excellence of our nature” (1595). In short, motivated by our drive for self-improvement, the opposite of which is anarchy. Arnold’s opinion is that anarchy essentially eliminates culture. This is because culture is driven by the improvement and actualization of the self, which therefore improves society, whereas anarchy cedes power to some higher authority by fighting against that authority.

In “Dover Beach” Arnold reflects upon his discontentment with the modern world. He views it as a continuing tide “Of human misery” (1562, line 18). Although the earth has the potential to be a “land of dreams” (line 31), war and destruction reign. Anarchy again shows up his writing as a major problem with modernity. Chaos is caused by “ignorant armies that clash by night” (line 37). The answer, according to Arnold, resides in the discovery of true culture. When man improves himself, he will in turn improve society, and a “firm and settled course of public order” will be restored, eliminating anarchy (1604).