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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The differences between Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Barbauld’s “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven” are staggering, especially in the way that each work portrays the power of a human to create and thrive. In the excerpt from Robinson Crusoe, Crusoe boasts that he is capable of using his own reason and intellect to procure all the necessities for living on a deserted tropical island: “In time, by labour, application, and contrivance, I found at last that I wanted nothing but I could have made it.” Crusoe firmly believes that his human reason will allow him to thrive, regardless of the circumstances.
Barbauld’s poem “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven” paints a very different picture of human abilities. In this piece, Britain lies in ruins, surpassed in opulence by the United States. Though Britain had long history of literature, art, and wealth, “The Genius now forsakes the favored shore, and hates, capricious, what he loved before” (241-242). According to this view, Britain’s long, rich history was simply a fluke of fate, not an achievement of human intellect. While Crusoe portrays humanity as an unstoppable creative force, “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven” dismisses human achievement as merely fated, showing a far more pessimistic view of human ingenuity during the Romantic period than during the Enlightenment.
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.