“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.

Aurora Leigh

I would argue that the portrayal of Aurora Leigh’s youth does have some hints of romanticism.  A lot of her writing is the narrator trying to make sense of life by relating what is going on to nature, but it is often used to also describe a disconnect with nature that she feels from the people in her life, such as her aunt and father.  It says, “The train swept us on: / Was this my father’s England? the great isle? / The ground seemed cut up from the fellowship / Of verdure, field from field, as man from man” (Browning 1158).  This quote shows that there is a sort of divorce from nature that contrasts what used to be.  She goes on and says that her aunt has lived “A sort of cage-bird life, born in a cage, / Accounting that to leap from perch to perch / Was act and joy enough for any bird” (Browning 1159). Her aunt was content to keep a limited view of the world because that was all she had ever known, and she didn’t show a particular interest in expanding her world, which is evident by the fact that she buys books and doesn’t even read them.  There is a Victorian emphasis on the cerebral, but it is lacking the passion and connection that is found in romanticism.

The narrator uses many breast feeding metaphors, and the one at the end of Book 1 is to me the most prominent quote that links the narrator to romanticism.  She states,

I had relations in the Unseen, and drew / The elemental nutriment and heat / From nature, as earth feels the sun at nights, / Or as babe sucks surely in the dark. / I kept the life thrust on me, on the outside / Of the inner life with all its ample room / For heart and lungs for will and intellect, / Inviolable by conventions.  God, / I thank thee for that grace of thine! (Browning 1162)

Despite all of the obstacles of a changing world, she keeps the war as an internal one, where she has been able to retain her inner life as a youth.

Involuntary maturity

What struck me must about our reading today is the lack of choice present in the life of the water-cress girl. When speaking with Mayhew, as he first brings up alternatives to the life she leads, she does not seem to understand. The young girl is only so in years, but as he mentions, she is already grown up. Is that because the amount of responsibility that she holds on her shoulders is more than many adults one encounters? This is an interesting take on what it means to be grown up. It is not as though young children do not start losing the ignorant innocence of being dependent on parents at the age of eight. But they definitely still believe in a world that isn’t out to destroy them. I do not believe that the water-cress girl is mature in the sense that she understands a lot about her life, but more that she understands a lot about the nature of being alive in general. This is in an abstract sense that probably is more striking to someone who is an adult and knows of the contrast she presents. But it is nonetheless her reality, thrust upon her in a violent way, and the burden has caused her to involuntarily embody much of what it means to be an adult at a very young age.

Victorian Youth on the Streets

Henry Mayhew gives an account of two encounters with young people struggling to survive in the hard environment of London’s streets.  Both started work at a very early age, and both are mature beyond their years.  They virtually had no childhood, as we know it, but were content with their lot in life.  They also showed a great ability to adapt to the changing environment around them.  The fifteen year old boy in particular had found a way to support himself in all types of weather: sweeping street crossings when dry, begging money in the rain, and shoveling snow in the cold.

Victorian youth are portrayed by Mayhew as resourceful, mature before their time, somewhat educated, and, for the most part, struggling to survive the harsh living conditions.  They have no transition period from child to adult, but are simply forced to grow up overnight and take on the adult role of providing for themselves and their family.  So, if we consider the transition from child to adult “youth,” Victorian children seem to skip youth entirely, taking away the freedom of exploration and choice commonly associated with youth.  They do not have the opportunity to choose their occupation or find their purpose in life, but are forced to adapt to their surroundings or die.

Culture & Anarchy in Society

In both his works, Dover Beach and Culture & Anarchy, Matthew Arnold condemns society for its destruction of culture. As he describes it, culture is the “love of perfection” in thought and faith and emotion. The modern world and its ugly, clanking machines are not perfect, for they don’t allow man to expand his abilities of thought and physicality; if a machine with its “grating roar” is doing all the work, how can a man do it, or better yet, how can he learn to do it? The comparisons made between France and England, one that the former became civilized and cultured by the implementation of a constriction, whilst the latter would sooner “run to the mines.” This highlights Arnold’s problem with society. Even though the people of England are so obsessed with having their freedom, they cannot see that the machines they “worship” have begun to constrain them and suppress them from fulfilling their potential.

Knowledge is what Arnold inputs all of his stock and society’s survival, it is his “sweetness and light,” as he likes to say often in both these works. The noble virtues of knowledge and understanding of all aspects of life are what can save society from the grave that these gargantuan machines are digging for them. In order to obtain culture, the reliance on machines, the heavy emphasis on social classes, and the lackadaisical attitude towards education and overall knowledge must cease.