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.


One thought on “Elizabeth Gaskell vs. Charles Darwin

  1. This is a strong bit of criticism. You point out some very telling moments in both the Gaskell and Darwin texts, and compare them nicely. However, don’t assume that Gaskell is directly expressing her thoughts on poverty. Just because an author might seem to be borrowing a set of ideas from somewhere, it doesn’t necessarily mean she agrees with those ideas. One of the luxuries of fiction is that it allows the author to explore points of view other than her own. Rather, ask yourself if Gaskell might be critiquing Darwinian ideas of self interest and survival of the fittest, given that Captain Brown dies while saving a child, an act which benefits the society at large.

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