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.


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