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 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.

our society at cranford.

Throughout this story, Elizabeth Gaskell makes the them of Darwin’s “natural selection” very evident. Natural selection is define by google as: the process whereby organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and produce more offspring. The author focused heavily on the external aspects of the characters describing some as “20 shades prettier” and others as sickly and pale. This represents the difference between those who may have been “selected” as opposed to those who have slim chances. The idea is that beauty is connected to strength and adaptability but it is not always the case. Some may have all the physical aspects yet not be able to adapt. This is manifested in her writing. The only character that represents all the qualities as explained in the previous stated definition is Miss Jessie Brown. She being the only one that survives proves that and especially being able to adapt and get married. Which is the second part of the definition; to produce more offspring. Being one that survived and adapted she will produce offspring who will be stronger and more capable of serving as well which will reinforce the idea that Darwin put forth.

It is very clear that the qualities we talked about in class (sweetness and beauty) are representative of the ability to adapt and survive. Darwin may suggest that maybe inherently people are subconsciously looking for a “mate” who will allow their offspring the best chance at survival.

“The Descent of Man” in comparison to “Our Society in Cranford”

While Darwin’s main focus is the scientific process of Natural Selection in The Descent of Man, he outlines some basic innate social policies that must “have been acquired through natural selection” (1279). The moral qualities described by Darwin are classified as “instincts… of a highly complex nature” (1279). Man’s higher intellectual power gives us the ability to have a very “distinct emotion of sympathy” (1279). The animalistic instincts to “take pleasure in each other’s company, warn each other of danger, defend and aid each other” (1279) is innate in humans according to Darwin. Darwin also suggests that this natural selection only happens in communities, not an entire species. This is highly reflected in the excerpt by Elizabeth Gaskell.

The Cranford community is as tightly knit as Darwin’s instinctual society suggests. The Cranford ladies are “quite sufficient”, and only have “an occasional little quarrel” (1433). These women abide by strict societal expectations that are naturally selected for this specific community. This selection almost always leads to men being pushed out due to not being able to adapt to the society that they enter, and accord to Gaskell, “in short, whatever does become of the gentlemen, they are not at Cranford” (1432). This instinct to aid each other is seen when a tea-party is thrown that is not up to the aristocratic par of the norm, but there is no issue brought up with it. “…every one took this novel proceeding as the most natural thing in the world…” (1434). Even after the disagreement of Captain Brown and Ms. Jenkyns over the authors, the instinct to aid and be sympathetic is seen when Ms. Jenkyns demands to have a funeral for Ms. Jessie’s father. She also demands that Jessie live with her instead of the house where she would be all alone. “Miss Jenkyns insisted that Miss Jessie should come to stay with her rather than go back to the desolate house…” (1445). The final example of the instinct to defend was when Ms. Jenkyns sent the gentleman to court Ms. Jessie, Ms. Matty was outraged and said “Deborah, there’s a gentleman sitting in the drawing-room with his arm round Miss Jessie’s waist!” (1446) All of this goes to show that this community was ruled by instinctual social norms that were created not due to human intentionality, but the human’s distinct sense of empathy and natural instinct to thrive in social settings with other humans.

Darwin’s evolutionary ideology in “Our Society at Cranford”

The society of Cranford easily incorporates Darwin’s theories of Survival of the Fittest, and of Adaptation, over the course of the story.

Broadly speaking, Survival of the Fittest prevails. Miss Jessie outlives both her father, Captain Brown, and her sister, Miss Brown. Neither died from “old age”: Her father died from a freak accident and her sister from a chronic illness. Miss Brown, in her last few words, reveals that their family had lost even more members before Captain Brown had died– “‘Father, mother, Harry, Archy'” (1445). Based on Darwin’s theory, Jessie’s characteristics set her up for success. She appears “childlike”, “twenty shades prettier” than her sister, and the narrator declares that “she should live to a hundred” (1436). Also, Survival of the Fittest requires fertility and successful reproduction, which applies to Jessie here as well. At the end of the story, Jessie has had a daughter, Flora, who has managed to survive long enough to learn to read (she has surpassed the age in which child mortality is highest in this era).

Adaptation also becomes apparent in this story by the changes in the Cranford ladies overall. Initially, the society of Cranford was entirely populated by women; “all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women”, and in Victorian society, property ownership often equated to those of some power. All of the ladies had a polite facade where talk of their average lives was practically nonexistent, and disdain for poverty made itself clear. When Captain Brown moves to Cranford (an intense change in the society already, solely due to his gender), he makes his financial situation known when determining a house to buy, and the women react with affront and distaste, declaring that if “he was so brazen as to talk of being poor–why, then, indeed, he must be sent to Coventry” (1434). This dislike of poverty ties back to Darwin’s thought that should all incapacitated and/or poor people not reproduce, the human species would have higher success or be better for it. He does, however, recognize that this is not possible and moves on from that. After this initial reaction of the ladies of Cranford, most of them adapt pretty quickly to this outsider because of his “manly frankness”, and his “excellent masculine common sense” along with his ability to “overcome domestic dilemmas” (1435). Not only did these qualities help Captain Brown fit in to society, but they also “gained him an extraordinary place as authority among the Cranford ladies” (1435).

Darwinism found in “Our Society at Cranford”

“Our Society at Cranford” is a novel by Elizabeth Gaskell that follows the story of residents in the town of Cranford. In this novel, Cranford is a small town found in England. The very nature of Cranford is very different from any real setting. To begin, Cranford is described as being “in possession of the Amazons” (1432). This statement immediately sets an interesting tone to the work by pointing out that there is a fierce race of people found in Cranford. Ideas such as one race being superior to another and that race being able to maintain a higher mental/physical ability reflects a very popular scientific contribution of the time made by Charles Darwin. The basis of Darwin’s natural selection is rooted in the idea that some species are made greater than others because they have evolved to be that way. “Our Society in Cranford” comes to reflect that sentiment even deeper when the reader reads on to learn that the women are in charge of running everything in Cranford, while “somehow the gentlemen disappears” (1432). The town that Gaskell builds is one that has deeply ingrained the hierarchy between different humans that was first noted by Darwin to exist between the species. Furthermore, Cranford is a town that believes itself to be above all other places because “though some might be poor, we were all aristocratic” (1434). The divisions that Darwin often makes between species and their developed mental capacities, seem to parallel the distinctions Gaskell makes between residents of Cranford, the women in Cranford, and the poor in Cranford. The way the narrator speaks about the poor in Cranford it is practically as if those who spoke “of poverty as if it was not a disgrace” were lower beings than the rich women who made up the substance of Cranford (1435). Overall, there appears to be distinct levels in Cranford between those who are higher ranking in intelligence and those who are not.

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.

Gaskell and Darwin


      Though Elizabeth Gaskell’s work “Our Society at Cranford” is primarily the charming dramatization of an eccentric,  town striving to maintain their idyllic ways in the midst of the growing industrial world, it also carries strands of social Darwinism. As poverty is a key theme in Darwin’s theories, it is likewise a prevalent theme running through Gaskell’s work. However, while Darwin considers poverty a “great evil” that “tends to its own increase by leading to recklessness in marriage” the ladies of Cranford were apt to “overlook all deficiencies in success” and resolved themselves to the everyday struggles of poverty (Darwin 1282). While they saw poverty as a “vulgar fact,” the ladies of Cranford considered themselves “quite sufficient” without the interference of men in their lives, and found their spinster ways of “elegant economy” made them “very peaceful and satisfied” (Gaskell 1433,1434). 

       However social Darwinism  converges on the society of Cranford  when the young and likable Miss Jessie enters into a happy and fruitful marriage with the gentleman, Major Gordon. Her happy marriage serves as a contrast to the short, pain-filled  life of her sister, Miss Brown, and reflects Darwin’s theory of the  “survival of the fittest.” Miss Jessie’s successful marriage and motherhood also highlights the waning era of the aging spinsters of Cranford and suggests holes in their struggle of existence. While Darwin would meet the struggles of life and poverty displayed in the town of Cranford with harsh eugenics; Gaskell, on the other hand, is able to approach these same struggles of life with a soft touch filled with charm and humor.



A Similarity Between “Our Socienty at Cranford” and Charles Darwin

The isolated town of Cranford, with its unique fashions, behaviors, and trends is an echo of Darwin’s theory of how things will develop differently if they are allowed to develop independently from everything else, such as how the tortoises are different on each of the Galapagos Islands.

“Their dress is very independent of fashion” (page 1433), is a good example of how things vary in Cranford from normal society.  They also have their own ideas of what is culturally acceptable, such as when making or receiving a call, “…never let… more than three days elapse between receiving a call and returning it; and also, that you are never to stay longer than a quarter of an hour” (page 1433).

The women of Cranford have very strict social rules, and tend to be taken aback by anyone from the outside that do not follow such rules, such as when Captain Brown announces his poverty loudly one day in the street.  This reminds me of Darwin’s reactions to the Fuegian natives and the ways in which they differed from his own society in regards of clothing or behavior.  It seems to me that the negative reaction of Miss Jenkyns to Captain Brown’s openness is similar to the negative reaction of Darwin to seeing how few clothes the natives wore, or other matters of their appearances.

Darwinism in Fiction : “Our Society at Cranford”

Darwin is an interesting character. His views on natural and sexual selection and evolution, especially as expressed in the The Descent of Man excerpt we read, seem blunt, verging on offensive during the time period, and “in-your-face,” to use a modern colloquialism. None of that, however, is seen in Gaskell’s “Our Society at Cranford.” Darwinist theories, if truly displayed with any intention and not simply because the ideas of the time accidentally influenced the majority of writers from that period onward, are hidden beneath a veil of humanity and queer society, and, to be perfectly frank, I was not even sure for what to search.

What I thought was interesting, and possibly telling to the idea of natural selection, is that “Cranford is in possession of the Amazons” (1432). Ladies are the prime population of the little town, and the only man mentioned for any lengthy period is Captain Brown, whom settles within the town and lives out his life rather happily. Perhaps, Gaskell is using Darwin’s theory of natural selection to describe the quaint, dated society in which they live; that it is not reproducing, and will eventually die out.

I discovered something similar in the death of Captain Brown, which, after the lively and brilliant descriptions of his kindness and character, upset me deeply. On page 1438, Miss Jenkyns and Captain Brown have quite the dispute over which author is better: Samuel Johnson (“Dr. Johnson”) or Charles Dickens (“Mr. Boz”). No concrete conclusion is reached on whom is better, though the debate, in which Brown asserts that Johnson’s style is “pompous writing” (1438), sparks some animosity between the two for some time. With Brown’s tragic death, however, Miss Jenkyns seems to drop her previous objections to the man, and is exceptionally kind to both of his daughters.

It is not within Miss Jenkyns’ actions that I found a point of interest, however, but rather, within their argument. The Pickwick Papers, the work by Dickens of which Brown is in favor, is humorous, witty, and an entertaining read, while Johnson’s work Rasselas is serious, moral, and philosophical. I found it interesting that Brown died while reading the Pickwick Papers, though Miss Jenkyns, who reads Rasselas, lives on into her old(er) age. There seems to be a comment here on the idea of “survival of the fittest,” for, while Captain Brown was certainly more physically fit for survival than Miss Jenkyns, she may have been more mentally fit, a quality that is becoming steadily more important amongst civilized society. This says something about the adaptability of the human race; while Darwin assumes that natural selection and survival of the fittest are applied in a physical sense (he is most capable of tilling a field or hefting bales of hay is more qualified for survival than he who tills metaphorical fields within the mind and hefts books), this idea that man’s continued survival depends on his moral, ethical, and philosophical prowess is certainly interesting.



Darwinism applied to Cranford

One aspect of Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Our Society at Cranford” that rhymes a bit with Darwin’s theories is adaptations made by the women of Cranford in order to survive. Gaskell makes it exceedingly clear that Cranford is not a wealthy town, and as such, the inhabitants must make do with what they have. As the narrator says, “If we walked to or from a party, it was because the night was so fine, or the air so refreshing, not because sedan-chairs were expensive,” (1434). This is, in a sense, similar to the way Darwin describes the Fuegians who somehow managed to adapt to the sometimes-miserable climate in which they live. In Chapter 10 of The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin describes a group of Englishmen and natives sitting around a fire. While the Englishmen are fully clothed and still quite cold, the natives are “streaming with perspiration at undergoing such a roasting,” (1268). Though the two groups, the women of Cranford and the Fuegians, live in radically different ways, they still must adapt to their situations in order to survive.

Another piece of “Cranford” that intrigued me was the fact that there are no men in the town. While the women may enjoy the fact that they can live uninterrupted from the annoyances of men, this way of life can only lead the town’s demise. Obviously, if there are no men, there are also no children being born to continue the existence of the town. Since this town is rather poor, Darwin would probably agree with this decision made by the women. After all, he says in The Descent of Man, “all ought to refrain from marriage who cannot avoid abject poverty for their children” (1282). Instead of resources being spent on a small poor town like Cranford, Darwin would like to see them in the hands of stronger people who could lead the human race toward perfection.

Looking at “Our Society at Cranford” through the lens of Darwinism makes for an interesting read. I couldn’t simply accept the town of Cranford as a quirky place filled with quirky people. Instead I saw it as a doomed town where the inhabitants nevertheless attempt to adapt to their surroundings. I honestly don’t much like this way of analyzing a piece of literature. For me, it takes away from the humane sensitivity and honesty that made this story a compelling and touching read.



When reading Gaskell’s text, I did see a lot of tension between the modern era and the older way of thinking and doing in Cranford. However, I do not think that I would have noticed similarities between Gaskell’s text and Darwin’s theories if I was not looking for them. The first thing that I noticed when examining the text with Darwin in mind was the similarity between Gaskell’s descriptions of the town and its inhabitants Darwin’s descriptions of the Fuegians. There is an observing, objective element to the descriptions given of Cranford, as if the narrator were a kind of naturalist. There are several phrases that really drive the sense of a naturalist describing what she sees home, such as: “there were certain rules and regulations for visiting and calling (1433).” Furthermore, we later learn that the narrator is a visitor to the town, not one of its proper inhabitants, just as Darwin was a visitor to the natives whose cultures he described.

The main point in the text in which Gaskell seems to directly address one of Darwin’s theories is her description of the relationship between Captain Brown, Miss Jessie, and the sickly Miss Brown. Darwin wrote about the “Struggle for Existence” which included “…not only the life of the individual, but success in leaving progeny (1273).” The end result of this struggle is that “…the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply (1277).” However, Miss Brown, one of the weaker individuals in the evolutionary struggle serves as an impediment and a drain on Captain Brown and Miss Jessie, who are more fit individuals. In particular, she wrecks her fitter sister’s chances to have children and a life of her own.

In her life, “Miss Brown used to accuse herself, not merely of hast and irritable temper, but also of being the cause why her father and sister were obliged to pinch, in order to allow her the small luxuries which were necessaries in her condition (1439).” This shows a sense of uneasiness that her own weakness and wasting illness is the cause of distress to the stronger, healthier members of her family. Furthermore, it is revealed that Miss Brown is the reason that Miss Jessie, who is, by all accounts, an exceedingly healthy and able individual, has not married and had children. Miss Brown shows remorse for holding her sister back on her deathbed, saying: “How selfish I have been! God forgive me for letting you sacrifice yourself for me as you did! (1445).” After her sister’s death, Miss Jessie is able to marry, and has a child, demonstrating her fitness to live, be happy, and leave offspring. I am unsure whether Gaskell is agreeing with Darwin’s theories of evolution or not, but she has certainly painted a subtle picture of the strong being held back by a sense of duty to their weaker kindred.

Opinions on Gaskell in light of Darwin’s writings

I agree with much that has been said so far. It is apparent that in this little community of Cranford there are sure elements of a “survival of the fittest”, namely through the sure examples already presented in these posts.

Something I found fascinating, however, is the string of an anti-Social Darwinism. I find it interesting that these women, though filling a monetary and class span, pretend to be on somewhat equal terms. This is not of the same spirit of survival of the fittest. The women pretend the party at Mrs. Forrester’s is just as fine as if it were in a large mansion. They play into Forrester pretending she had nothing to do with the cakes, while in reality (and they all know it) , she had helped the servant make them. It’s a sort of community survival rather than separating the successful from the less fortunate of the class.

Another instance I found interesting was because Miss Barker loved her cow so, she created some ridiculous flannel covering to keep the creature alive. If this were strictly a survival of the fittest, the cow should have been left to die or put out of her misery. And while Captain Brown does suggest Miss Barker kill the cow, the idealism of survival of the fittest does not prevail here.

One other thing I wish to point out is that while there were no men in Cranford (other than Captain Brown), and the women seem to be successful on their own as well as the superior being, one of them remarks that she knows men are superior and would’t want to be considered superior as a woman. It find these little points very interesting juxtapositions to the obvious elements of social Darwinism at work within this short story.

Our Society at Cranford

In his writings, Darwin’s theories around evolution, natural selection, and sexual selection are commonly known as the survival of the fittest.  In part, it identifies the alpha male’s dominance over and competition for the strongest female in order to pass along the best traits that will ensure the continuation of the species.  But Darwin in Cranford?  The ladies would vigorously object, I’m sure.  But he does make his way in – at least with his ideas, not his person.

Elizabeth Gaskell chronicles the day to day life of the women in Cranford.  The men of the town are largely absent, leaving the women the freedom to live their lives without the sexual tension when men are around.  Gaskell naively asks, “What could they do if they were there?”  When Captain Brown moves into town and inserts himself into their society, the sexual tension erupts.  Using Darwinian terms, “The ladies of Cranford were already rather moaning over the invasion of their territories by a man.”  Captain Brown soon adapted “in the way of a tame man about the house” yet the women succumbed to instinct by quoting his opinions as authority, and recognizing his “excellent masculine common sense.”  When he attends one of their tea parties, the ladies respond thus: “ruffled brows were smoothed, [and] sharp voices lowered at his approach.”  When Gaskell pits the only two men in the town together in church, the two compete when they try to outsing each other:

          [Captain Brown] made the responses louder than the clerk- an old man with

          a piping feeble voice, who I think, felt aggrieved at the Captain’s sonorous bass, and

          quivered higher and higher in consequence. (pg 1436)

 While the story is recognized as an accurate portrayal of life in small town England in its day, Gaskell is also accurate in her representation of Darwin’s theories.  She seems to use the sexual tension as a humorous conflict to move the story along.

Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Darwin

In Elizabeth Gaskell’s short story “Our Society At Cranford”, I noticed some interesting instances of some topics that Darwin discusses in his papers on the evolution and origin of species. For example, the women in this community have established themselves as the “fittest”, as “all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women”. Scientifically speaking, women in this community have eliminated male competition for resources like property and wealth, and have therefore become the power-holders. They have done this by essentially becoming independent of the need for males. As one of them says ” ‘A man…is so in the way in the house!’ “.

I was also interested to notice that the train, the symbol of industry and modernity in this story, is what ended up killing Captain Brown. For as many ways as he is the outlier in the town that was formally reigned by women, and for as much as he may also symbolize modernity in the way he changes the behavior of Cranford, it is telling that he is run over by a train. This is related to Darwin by the fact that, though human beings can create societies as complex as Cranford, they are not invincible to the natural world or the things they create. In this way, the train is as much a symbol of modernity as it is a symbol of the force of nature.

Textual Evolution of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species

Here is the link to Ben Fry’s visualization of the textual evolution of Darwin’s Origin of Species. It shows the additions and subtractions made to each chapter over time, color-coded for each edition. As you can see, Chapter 7 gets the largest input in the 6th edition (1872). Since the visualization provides a bird’s-eye view of the whole text, you can mouse over different parts to see exactly what it says there. It’s interesting that what we normally think of scientific theories as fixed and static, yet they develop along with their written expression over time. You can click on the Fast button (top right) to speed up the visualization.