In The Voyage of the Beagle, twenty-two year old Charles Darwin boarded the H.M.S Beagle and sailed towards the coast of South America. He crossed paths with the Fuegian people, and described the way civilized man exchanged information with “savage man” (1263). Darwin says, “…the party looked rather alarmed, but continued talking and making gestures with great rapidity, It was the most curious and interesting spectacle I ever beheld,” and furthered his statement with comparing this meet-up to a wild and domesticated animal (1263). Darwin’s encounter with people unfamiliar to his native-tongue, and noting the physical differences, leads his discovery in the theory of evolution, which came twenty years after he landed back home. He outlines the way the Fuegians dress so minimalist and how appalled their lifestyle is, “but these Fuegians in the canoe were quite naked, and even one full grown woman absolutely so,” and even goes as far as to call them “barbarians” (1266). This journey that he took on helped create the scientific literature he published many years later. He begins his work by crediting how the better individuals in species arise in nature and their struggle for existence bear on natural selection, but also how certain parts of the world play a role in existing (1272). An abundance of food source and water are just small sections of things that play a part in survival, and he goes on to explain in the next chapter (1273).
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.
After reading William Wordsworth’s “Lines Left upon a Seat in a Yew-Tree” I noticed several different ways this piece contrasts the enlightenment sensibility. Even by looking at the tittle of this piece you can see that nature is a prevalent theme. The man that Wordsworth writes about is a man who rejected society after it turned his pure heart as he grew up. “He to the world went forth pure in his heart, against the taint of dissolute tongues.” He leaves mankind and takes to the river one that is “great as any sea, and was never heard of more.” Unlike the ideals of the enlightenment he goes to be one with nature. Upon arriving where the river took him he is overwhelmed with it’s beauty as he sheds tears of joy. He embraces it to give peace to his mind and life. This is a direct contradiction to the scientific and systematic way of life that he rejected.
He found solitude and happiness in that, but it did not last long. He began to feel lonely and regretted the idea that he could not experience a relationship with another human being.”Then he would sigh, inly disturbed, to think that others felt what he must never feel.” He grows sadder and sadder, “his eyes streamed with tears,” and he eventually dies alone. This piece is driven by emotion and and the desire for solidarity within Nature.
A major theme in Endgame is death. Or rather, the living dead. Much like Eliot in The Waste Land, Beckett uses the dead with an entirely different meaning. Endgame is a story without time, without a story really, so the characters could be anyone or anything. Clov and Hamm seem to be alive, but Nagg and Nell are questionably so. They have “very white face[s]” (Beckett 2582). It also seems that Nagg is Hamm’s father, and since Hamm is on the brink of death, the two ashcan occupants must be some kind of ghostly creatures who do not seem to be aware of their absence from the world of the living. This parallels Eliot in the very beginning of The Waste Land. The first stanza (at the least) is narrated by the dead, who calmly discuss the circumstances of their decomposition. Although they differ in knowing they are dead, they share a distinctive indifference to the fact.
The Waste Land and Endgame also both take place in undefined historical periods. They both have great meaning and serve as critiques for their (and all) times, but remain ambiguous. Endgame’s setting in a gray room in a gray world is certainly not confined to one civilization, but Western seems appropriate, being the one with which Beckett is most acquainted. By not using a specific time period, he also takes no prisoners in accusing the world of repeating the same mistakes over and over. “Ah yesterday!” Nell repeatedly moans, and she is joined in the sentiment by the rest of the characters as they repeat phrases and conversations over and over, until Hamm finally says, “Ah the old questions, the old answers, there’s nothing like them!” (Beckett 2586, 2595). Repetition demonstrates the brick wall in the way of progress created by nostalgia. The quick pace of the discourse also demonstrates the churning repetition of human misery and folly, just like the wild, scattered, tumbling nature of The Waste Land.
In light of our recent reading of Endgame, I thought you’d like to see this page with pictures of animals captioned by quotes from existentialist authors. The seal saying “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” is quoting Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot.
“Hamm: We’re not beginning to…to…mean something?
Clov: Mean something! You and I mean something!…Ah that’s a good one!”
In this excerpt from Endgame, Beckett takes on the essence of postmodernism head-on, with a core of existentialist thought. His characters find themselves in a bleak, uninteresting room, where they are actors and their surroundings are as meaningless as themselves. This setting is truly “outside of history”, in that they may as well be captive alien species in a sealed zoo exhibit on Tralfamador, they are so removed from the past of the human race, and the context of human civilization. This seems to weaken their humans status, and bring them down to the level of lab rats in God’s cruel existential parlor game, where even the humans have awareness of the hopelessness and absurdity of their situation, as evidenced in this quote.
This is different from how T.S. Eliot critiques the history of Western civilization. Eliot takes direct quotes from the past, lines from major works and allusions to historical events, and ties them into an explicit narrative in which he is simultaneously bard, observer, and participant. Eliot’s method is explicit, Beckett’s method is implicit. Both arrive at similar conclusions by different means, and this concluson is the absurd status of the human, on a cultural as well as an existential level. Beckett’s critique of Western civilization is at once oblique and biting, which is what lends it its postmodern irony and wit.