Our Society at Cranford, by Elizabeth Gaskell

At the first reading of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Our Society at Cranford, I thought that Darwnism was not obviously present in the text. I had to think more about it to realize that this short story might actually be a sort of fictional practical application of Darwin’s theories about the evolution and the natural selection. Indeed, in this fictionnal city, most of the inhabitants are women, as it is underlined by the very first sentence of the text : “Cranford is in possession of the Amazons”. This reference to the mythological Amazons clearly puts the reader in a context of fight, of struggle, since the Amazons are a people exclusively composed of women, who were real warriors. This can be read under Darwin’s theory of natural selection influence, which involves a real struggle for life. We can thus suppose that the inhabitants of Cranford are strong women who survived the hardship of life and of natural selection.

But I think that what puts the most into practice Darwin’s theories in this text is the story of the family Brown. In many ways, this family seems to be the fictional example of the application of Darwin’s theories. Indeed, the three members of the family embody the phenomenon of natural selection as defined by Darwin. At the end of this extract, only one out of three members of the family survives. This is the youngest daughter, who is described from the beginning as a strong person, spoilt by nature : ” It was true there was something childlike in her face; and there will be, I think, till she dies, though she should live to a hundred.” In this sentence, we can notice that Miss Jessie seems really young, yet youth is associated with strengh and vitality. Plus, the narrator underlines the fact that she will live old : “a hundred”, supposed, “years” ; which is a very long life for a human being, especially at the time Gaskell wrote that short story. On the contrary, her sister is presented as a very weak person : “Miss Brown must have been forty; she had a sickly, pained, careworn expression on her face, and looked as if the gaiety of youth had long faded out of sight.”. Contrary to her sister, she embodies the old age. Moreover, the enumeration of pejorative adjectives such as “sickly, pained, careworn” insists on the fact that she is sick, and make the reader suppose from the beginning that she won’t live as long as her sister. Indeed, whereas her sister is spoilt by nature, she is not. She belongs to the “weak” beings, while Miss Jessie belongs to the “strong” beings, according to Darwin’s theory. Then, Miss Brown will not live long. Finally, even the last member of the family, Captain Brown, the father, is confronted with natural selection. He is, like his daughter Miss Jessie, appointed as a “strong” being, who is supposed to survive. However, he will die too, not because of weakness, but because of an accident. In other words, Captain Brown is victim of what we could call “random”. In a way, he is also a victim of natural selection, because nature is in someway made of randoms. He was at the wrong place at the wrong time. To summurize it, family Brown is the practical application of Darwnin’s theory of natural selection : two out of three beings are going to die – one of them because he was too weak to survie, the other one because of random – and only one of them will survive – the strongest.

Furthermore, Brown’s family is also a kind of practical application of Darwin’s theory of sexual selection. In this city fulled with women, a man is obviously not going unnoticed. But Captain Brown appears to be a very attractive man, who answers to all the categories that makes a male individual attractive to the eyes of a female individual. We can read : “his excellent masculine common sense […]  had gained him an extraordinary place as authority among the Cranford ladies”. The words “masculine common sense” here refer to a sort of scientific language. These words added to the meliorative adjective “excellent” clearly show that he is a kind of model of what masculinity should be, according to women. So there is an obvious reference to Darwin’s sexual selection, and, globally, the whole family seems to be a sort of fictionnal application of Darwin’s theories of evolution.

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One thought on “Our Society at Cranford, by Elizabeth Gaskell

  1. I would definitely agree that Darwin’s theory of natural selection and survival of the fittest can be seen in the Brown family but I also think it extends to the Cranford society in general. Looking at the characters we are presented with as a whole we see that the Cranford ladies are better off than the Browns are suppose themselves to be of higher class as well. Captain Brown openly admits to being poor, not receiving very much pay and caring for two daughters, one who is very ill. The women of Cranford seem to invite them into their party reluctantly which gives a sense of their character. “He had been friendly, though the Cranford ladies had been cool; he had answered small sarcastic compliments in good faith,” (1435). Compared to Captain Browns friendly nature the women are petty and mean. Throughout the selection this can be seen in the way that they treat the Browns. Miss Jenkyns remarks how Jessie should, “leave off her dimples, and not always look like a child,” (1436) after some small unknown slight was made. Jessie is young and pretty with the same friendly attitude as her father while her sister is old, sickly, and bitter. Out of these traits it is easy to see which ones are selected for. Captain Brown is said to look much younger that he actually is (1435) and he has two daughters which says something about his reproductive success. Miss Brown was ill and died at an earlier age than her father with no offspring. So obviously her traits were not selected for. The women of Cranford do not show favorable traits either which can be seen when the narrator says, “there had veen neither births, deaths, nor marriages since I was there last.” Jessie on the other hand does get married and has a daughter, whom later takes care of Miss Jenkyns when she starts to become old and sick. So Darwins theory of natural selection can be seen in “Our Society in Cranford”. There is competition for survival, varying traits, and the heritability of these traits, which can be seen in Jessie inheriting a young looking face and friendly disposition from her father.

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