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.


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.

Gaskell and Darwin: A Non Sequitur?

I will be honest and say it was a bit of a stretch for me to find much that was similar in these two works other than the obvious topic of gender roles. In Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, the fact that women, or “Amazons” if you like, dominate the populace show much of what Charles Darwin proposed about sexual selection. Because their husbands are away most of the time or are they are simply single, women do everything in Cranford, and are apparently damn good at it. Cranford lives in harmony for the most part until a man, Captain Brown, arrives and throws a wrench in the works and muddles up what Darwin would call the harmony of natural selection within the town, albeit making it better once the women learn to evolve their perceptions.

Both Gaskell and Darwin appreciate tradition and a sense of community within their respective spheres (Cranford and evolutionary mammals). Whilst Drumble is becoming more materialistic and hectic, and religion still holds the most sway in popular opinion on scientific discoveries, these two writers lobby for a mutual understanding between all parties and diplomatic respect for the inevitable changes that come with being a part of this world.

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.



Social Hierarchy: Darwin and Gaskell

Darwin’s theory of social hierarchy and survival of the fittest is prevalent throughout “Our Society at Cranford” by Elizabeth Gaskell. In “Our Society at Cranford”, the ones who know the game of society the best, survive the scene. The elder ladies ruled Cranford, and to survive you had to abide by their rules. Men had no place in this society, as shown in Gaskell’s words, “In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons”(Gaskell, 1432). So when, Captain Brown comes into town and tries to integrate himself into the town, he causes sparks. And though he is there for a while, he ultimately meets his demise, followed by his daughter. The Brown family caused trouble to the natural ecosystem of Cranford but when two of the family members die, Miss Jenkyns takes the opportunity to put the social hierarchy right, by having the second Brown daughter marry her equal in status. This would satisfy Darwin’s theories on marriage and also prove his ideas about the social hierarchy and its fluctuations are correct. Gaskell’s writing also shows the influence of social Darwinism and how the concept of the proper place in society influenced other writers. 

Survival of the Prettiest

A similar theme in both Darwin’s theory and Gaskell’s fiction is “survival of the fittest”. Both of these works feature the animalistic side of humanity by showing the main goal of people is to survive and multiply. In, “Our Society of Cranford” the only surviving member of the Brown family was Miss Jenkyns. It is not merely a coincidence that she is the most attractive member of the family and the most likeable. According to Darwin, Miss Brown did not live a long and fruitful life because she was defective. Both Gaskell and Darwin illustrate the superiority of Miss Jenkyns to her sister because she was neither sickly nor unattractive. Darwin states, “The advancement of the welfare of mankind is a most intricate problem: all ought to refrain from marriage who cannot avoid abject poverty for their children.” He also says that “Both sexes ought to refrain from marriage if in any marked degree inferior in body or mind.” Darwin would approve of Miss Jenkyns marriage because of the status of Major Gordon and the attractiveness of each of them. Miss Jenkyns is described as “Her eyes were large blue wondering eyes, looking straight at you; her nose was unformed and snub, and her lips were red and dewy; she wore her hair too, in little rows of curls, which heightened this appearance. I do not know whether she was pretty or not; but I liked her face, and so did everybody.” Both the ladies of Cranford and Darwin chose to only consider the shallow aspect of life, how things look, not how they really are, a trademark of social darwinism.

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.