Gaskell and Darwin

At first, I found it difficult to find similarities between the various Darwin excerpts and that from Our Society at Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell. Upon beginning the reading, I was immediately struck by the image of Cranford as a feminine utopia– in one of my other classes this semester, we read a novel about a perfect nation inhabited only by women (Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman) and I started to view Cranford through this lens. It is helpful to see the town of Cranford as an independent nation with views and ideals that vary greatly from the rest of English society (specifically that of the larger cities like London) because it creates a link to Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle. In both texts, the author/narrator is an outsider who intrudes upon an isolated group of people and reports his/her findings; the difference is that, in the Gaskell reading, the narrator comes from Cranford while Darwin is a foreigner visiting Tierra del Fuego. Both texts can be read as a travel narrative in which the narrator is describing the tendencies of a certain group of people in contrast to a different society (Darwin’s England/Europe and Gaskell’s Manchester). Both texts greatly generalize the practices and behaviors of the inhabitants they describe– while Darwin presents the Fuegians as animalistic and wild, Gaskell presents the ladies of Cranford as anachronisms who hate “vulgarity” and praise “elegant economy” (1434) instead of embracing the societal changes precipitated by the Industrial Revolution.

Furthermore, both texts incorporate a conflict between the inhabitants of their respective places using a man whose beliefs conflict with that of the society. Darwin and his fellow Europeans present this conflict in his text and the two different peoples attempt (and fail) to reconcile their beliefs and practices with those of the other. Darwin consistently comments upon these differences, stating: “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, inasmuch as in man there is a greater power of improvement” (1263). Gaskell’s text exhibits this same dichotomy, although her’s is  between the sensational character of Captain Brown, who defies all of the expectations and unspoken rules of Cranford society. According to Gaskell, “we did not know what to make of a man who could speak of poverty as if it was not a disgrace” (1435). Both texts subtly criticize the “foreigners” within them for their lack of understanding of the functioning of polite, civilized society, although these rules are unspoken and never made clear to these individuals. Additionally, both texts assert the dominance and supremacy of polite English society, failing to take into consideration other cultures or ways of acting.

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2 thoughts on “Gaskell and Darwin

  1. I like your observation about both texts acting as a travel narrative. I didn’t even think about Gaskell’s piece in this way. I think that I see what you mean by both Gaskell and Darwin using one man to create a disruption in society. While reading this part of your post, it seemed like you were talking about Jemmy and his reintroduction to his native people after being taken and educated. Is that what you were referring to?

  2. Wow, a travel narrative? It seems obvious now that you made that argument but I have to say I hadn’t drawn that parallel at all. I like how you recognized that it is not necessarily physical travel but how both groups are in contrast to a bigger society.

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