Darwin’s Influence

Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle is interesting in the way that it is presented through a scientific mind that challenged the close-mindedness of the Victorians, which greatly influence a movement of deadly curiosity towards a faith of morality. This stems from Darwin’s unique writing style that presents the realities of the unknown with a clear, analytic perceptive with devices such as diction and imagery. For instance, Darwin has very strong, descriptive diction that further pushes curiosity in the minds of the readers. When Darwin presents the Fuegians found on the west coast of Wollaston Island, he describes them as “poor wretches” with “hideous faces” and “filthy and greasy” skin that makes one question how they are “inhabitants of the same world” (1266). Just as he concluded, the appearance of the these people are unbelievable, especially for minds that did not think of the realities of what they considered unknown. Along with this description, in the earlier selections Darwin also presented Fuegians with the same intense astonishment like the previous. When describing his first arrival to Tierra del Fuego, he explains how the natives’ language was compared to someone clearing their throat with many “hoarse, guttural, and clicking sounds” and how they all “posses the power…[the] power of mimicry” (1264). Again Darwin continues to compare the humanity of the natives to the men that have “long civilized” as he claims how this unknown reality is entirely tangible. With this influence, Victorians may question their own set of norms and morals, and how in a sense have been shielded by their own internalized superiority complex throughout the many years of colonization. Regardless of the tone and intention Darwin originally constructed, his works do influence the way one views and concludes about a concept, idea, and so on.


Darwin’s work “The Voyage of the Beagle” is applicable to literary analysis through its reflection of the radical transformation of the Victorian beliefs, while still trying to work within them. When Darwin arrives at Tierra del Fuego he immediately establishes his lack of understanding of the world before him, it is something he has never “beheld” (pg. 1262). However, he takes the time to create a barrier between “savage and civilized man”, despite his lack of knowledge (pg. 1263). Darwin is still trying to fit these new experiences within his current Victorian/Colonialism belief system– anything new is inferior and infantile. For example, the party he meets at the island resembles “the devils” from the “plays like Der Freischutz” and the language they speak is barely “articulate”(pg. 1264). He still chooses to hold an entirely different world to Victorian ideals, and fit them with his preconceived notion of what is acceptable. This accurately reflects the Colonial mindset of English superiority and English responsibility to the native inhabitants to “educate them and instruct them in religion” (pg. 1265). When Captain Fitz Roy “bought” a child with a “pearl-button” for this very purpose. This juxtaposes the opposing views of the time period: improve the world through cruel colonization. However, Darwin tries to assuage his guilt with the description of “brutal” husbands and fathers (pg. 1267). This shows the unsustainable belief system trying to work within a world that does not play by the same rules. This same conundrum is paralleled when Darwin tries to explain “inherited habit[s]” in birds and the “natural history of these islands” (1270-72). The conclusions he must draw cannot be made within the same cultural rule book. For Darwin to understand he must break away.


I think we are reading Darwin because he has a distinct style involving lots of imagery, he is a scientist as so he has a different view on the world, and his writing provides another view on Victorian beliefs. Starting with his style, Darwin describes the scenery and people in his account with more detail and imagery than would be expected. He describes “dense gloomy forests” and “heavy squalls” to set the scene of his story. This provides a clearer picture for the reader. He describes the people he meets almost like characters in a story, going through their identifying features and traits one after another. He describes the natives he meets as “devils” and describes their face-paint as “bright red”, “white like chalk”, and “black like charcoal”. He describes their language as “hoarse, guttural, and clicking”. Darwin has a very descriptive style which is one of reasons why we are reading him. Darwin’s style may have evolved from his job as a scientist, or naturalist in his time. Darwin, being a scientist, writes is a more clear and less ornate style than some of the other authors we have read. He writes his observations with very little of his own opinions coming in until the section on the Galapagos in which he theorizes why he thinks the islands have such varied organisms. Lastly, Darwin was a Victorian and as such he shares many of the same views as his contemporaries. In his writings, you can see his racist view of the natives and his view that western society is helping them get out of there “savage” ways.

Darwin’s Exploration of the Unknown

Though during his time, he was seen as a mostly controversial figure in the eyes of many, Charles Darwin was one of the first prominent writers who changed the way in which people view tradition and traditional values. Although his upbringing was anything but what his father wanted, he still had high hopes to study natural history. His theories on evolution and marriage were seen to be controversial. On page 1262, he specifically says that “….a wife would provide an ‘object to be beloved and played with-better than a dog anyhow.’ To many people, that statement, and rightfully so, made people angry. Many scholars began to belittle his theories and opinions.

In his work titled, “The Voyage of the Beagle” from Chapter 10. Tierra Del Fuego, he discusses his encounters with the Fuegians, the people native to the archipelago off the southern tip of South America. He says the shore is, “..rugged, inhospitable Staten-land..” and the people  as “..stunted, miserable wretches farther westward..(1263), with only a single cloth for clothes. The “savages” were easily able to catch on to their actions. They are extremely good at mimicking. I think that people during this time didn’t want to believe that there were people out there who only had cloth for clothing or only communicated with hand motions or sounds. Darwin explores and exposes this unknown reality of living to the public through elaborate imagery which makes one feel as if they are truly there. Studying Darwin is key because not only did he set the foundation for all kinds of inquiry and discussion, but to this day, many people still question the idea of evolution because it seems so foreign to us. His ideas and theories are so important to the everlasting progression of the human species. The idea of mimicking especially resonates well because most of us do this without even thinking about it. It’s how we all learned how to walk, run, speak, climb etc.

Darwin’s Significance Within Literature

During the period known as “The Age of Doubt,” Darwin quintessentially influenced the Victorian age, embodying the skepticism that marked this time through his scientific theories and ideas. Though not the first to contradict Victorian conventions, he strongly contributed to the movement. His works helped mark the shift in English values and traditions, especially regarding the bible and its teachings. These new ways of thought certainly provoked numerous responses from the Victorian people (including literary authors), allowing Darwin’s works to cross the line between science and literature. This not only proves Darwin’s significance in both fields; it reveals his significance within the revolution. In his book, The Voyage of Beagle, though not explicitly stated, evolutionary ideas exist within the accounts of his travels. When describing his time in Patagonia among the Fuegians, he questions their abilities to live in the conditions that they do. Upon his reflecting of this question, he states, “Nature by making habit omnipotent and its effects hereditary, has fitted the Fuegian to the climate and the productions of his miserable country” (1267). This statement directly points to natural selection, as he describes the Fuegian ability to adapt to their environment through nature’s methods of turning habit into inherent trait. In Chapter 17, he focuses on the animals of the American Cordillera rather than the people living there. In observing the birds and tortoises of the land, he concludes, “first, that the wildness of birds… is a particular instinct directed against him… secondly, that it is not acquired by individual birds in a short time… but that in the course of successive generations it becomes hereditary.” (1272). Though he doesn’t clearly define evolution in his work (at this point), his observations outright contradict the beliefs derived from the bible, contributing to the doubt of the time. Literature is not the only platform that incites revolution; Beagle, though a scientific account, caused further questions of the values and beliefs held by Victorian people. Though not literature itself, his work influences the readers and authors of it by offering newfound knowledge to supplement the newfound ways of thought.

Darwin’s Imagery

In order to cause a scientific paradigm shift as monumentally large as Darwin’s works were able to cause, your words must be convincing. The works of Darwin are studied in modern context not only for their content, but for their craft as well. Through the lense of an English course, Darwin’s travel writings shine for their evocative use of imagery. Darwin describes the landscape of the Galapagos as “dry and parched, [giving] the air a close and sultry feeling, like that of a stove” (1269). Darwin’s use of imagery and simile is relatable to the Victorian everyman, who is more likely to know the smell of a stove than that of a dry, equatorial island. A strong image can be transformative to a piece of writing, and I believe the images of Darwin’s travel writing is what makes them effective and engaging within their genre.

Beyond the purpose of genre and pleasing its readership, Darwin’s use of imagery serves two other purposes: it both catalogues Darwin’s surroundings and convinces the reader to Darwin’s own beliefs of his surroundings. By using descriptive words, Darwin can successfully catalogue his journey and what he’s seen for future usage. This, of course, will later result in the publication of On the Origin of Species. However, the qualifiers that Darwin chooses also work to convince his audience of several of the points that Darwin asserts within his work. Unfortunately, chief among these assertions are the inferiority of the native peoples he encounters to his own race, the difference between which is said by Darwin to be “greater than between a wild and domesticated animal” (1263).  To accentuate this claim, Darwin uses demeaning qualifiers while describing the people of the islands, such as “miserable wretches” (1263) and the constant “savage” (1266). At one point, Darwin compares the native population to “the devils which come on the stage in plays like Der Freischutz” (1264). This use of imagery serves to demean the native peoples of the Galapagos and therefore, within the mind of an uncritical reader, aids Darwin’s earlier claims of their relative inferiority.

Darwin’s Influence

Darwin’s writings profoundly affected thought and one’s perspective, in England; as such, his ideas would certainly influence English writers. The nineteenth century was a period of turbulence for traditional ideas; Darwin’s writings added to the skepticism of old beliefs regarding humans’ place in the world. For the first time, many began to consider taking the perspective that, perhaps, humankind’s origins lie with the beginnings of all other animals, as Darwin suggests. Such ideas were problematic for religious institutions, as they contradicted the Bible’s explanation of the creation of the universe. While on his voyage, in an attempt to explain why the birds were so docile, Darwin states: “[fear of humans] is not acquired by individual birds in a short time, even when much persecuted; but that in the course of successive generations it becomes hereditary” (Darwin 1272). This quote illustrates the inspiration given to Darwin by the voyage for the idea of natural selection, as he compares the birds he encounters to the birds in England, which do have fear of humans (Darwin 1272). Darwin implies that the laws of natural selection apply to humans, as well: “Nature by making habit omnipotent and its effects hereditary, has fitted the Fuegian to the climate and the productions of his miserable country” (Darwin 1267). Darwin sees the differences between himself and the Fuegian people; he sees how they evolved differently from himself to adapt to their environment. Whereas many once believed humankind to be separate from the rest of the animal kingdom, Darwin’s revolutionary ideas rendered those ideas null to the open-minded people of English society. As Darwin’s ideas influenced English thinking so much, understanding them and the conflicts they created is important in comprehending the writings of writers of the period.

Darwin and his Contradictions

Darwin majorly contributed to a massive culture shift from the previously doctrinaire stance of creationism with his scientific evolutionary innovations. Moreover, the difficulty of accepting such a new principle about the origin of species and humankind was occurring amidst constant social turmoil that the industrial era brought, i.e. “the crisis of religious doubt occasioned by biblical scholarship and scientific discoveries hit Christian belief hard” (1056). Beyond its cultural significance as a consciousness reframing, Darwin’s recording of evolutionary evidence is written as a persuasive— and somewhat contradictory— argument that utilizes common ground with his British audience. For example, when discussing the Feugians, he describes that “they could repeat with perfect correctness each word in any sentence we addressed them, and they remembered such words for some time.” Darwin describes the Feugians as having differences, but also similarities to give them some sort of agency to an audience familiar primarily with justifications for imperialism. Extensively, Darwin moves to make this description even more relatable to his British audience by stating “yet we Europeans know how difficult it is to distinguish apart the sounds of a foreign language” (1264). Darwin is partially reframing the established British understanding about the constructed hierarchy of mankind, but he is doing it in a way that fits within British rhetoric, and he is not abandoning every racist trope— he still refers to the indigenous persons as “savages” and mocks the Fregians for so-called “mistakes” in their English i.e. “I should think there was scarcely another human being with so small a stock of language, for his English was very imperfect” (1268). Darwin was not outside of racist thought, and his method of recording information walks the line between British-fueled imperialist mentality and the changing age of scientific and industrial discoveries.

Darwin’s Literary Thinking

We are reading Darwin in an English course because he thought as any author would think about his writings. Most non-fiction writers you think of write about social issues at the time, mostly political. Especially in England in Darwin’s time period, most writers went to a university specifically for writing. For Darwin, he “spent…three years at Cambridge,” as his father hoped he would become a “country clergyman” (1260). As Darwin “considered his formal education a complete waste,” he instead focused on “natural history,” leading him to evolutionary theory (1260). Although Darwin was a scientist, his paper On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection explains why we read it in an English course. As we read, we look beyond the lines in an English course, making inferences on the writings. Although Darwin wrote a scientific paper, this is exactly what you can do with his work. As he discusses “the inhabitants of this savage land” early in his paper, the reader already knows of his thoughts towards colonialism, in that he sees these “wild…animal[s]” as inferior to the white man (1262-1263). Although he’s very factual, his superiority is inferred by his word choice, and makes for an interesting topic in a literary discussion. He even uses imagery in a scientific paper, as he discusses the “Fuegians…concealed by the entangled forest,” and the reader can visualize these people more easily (1262). This imagery can lead to a further literary discussion about why he uses such imagery throughout his paper, making Darwin an acceptable reading for an English course.