Implementation in the literature classroom:
Darwin as Synecdoche

© Paula Berggren
1 August 1998


Studying literature allows us to see how Darwin changed the cultural landscape. References to Darwin and to a series of scientific ideas associated with his name proliferate throughout the literature of the 19th century and persist still. One might say they function as the figure of speech called synecdoche, in which the part stands for the whole.

In our course in Great Works of Literature II, I have long used an excerpt from the opening chapter of Theodore Dreiser's novel The Financier, the first book of a trilogy based on the career of Charles T. Yerkes, who made a fortune building the street-railways of Chicago and London. Yerkes' business practices, however, could not stand up to careful scrutiny; unlike many of the great robber barons, he actually served time in prison. How, Dreiser asks, did this human type evolve? The Financier opens with the young Frank Cowperwood trying to figure out how life was organized. How did all these people get in to the world? What were they doing here? What started things, anyhow? His mother told him the story of Adam and Eve, but he didn't believe it.

He answers his question by watching a lobster devour a squid in a tank displayed in the window of the local fish market. This exercise in the survival of the fittest shapes his entire life. Concluding that the squid "didn't have a chance," he has a flash of insight: "Things lived on each other--that was it." The chapter ends with an apparent non-sequitur:

But for days and weeks, Frank thought of this and of the life he was tossed into, for he was already pondering on what he should be in this world, and how he should get along. From seeing his father count money, he was sure that he would like banking; and Third Street, where his father's office was, seemed to him the cleanest, most fascinating street in the world.

So Darwin made him a criminal.

As many of us in the Darwin discussions agreed, our students find this Darwinian account of how life works entirely reasonable at the same time that they recoil from the religious implications of Darwin's theory. Frank Cowperwood is not the only youngster whose mother told him about Adam and Eve. Juxtaposing this excerpt from Dreiser's rather crude work with subtler examples of literary realism only deepens the ethical dilemma that our students must grapple with: if Frank Cowperwood is right, then is the light that comes in the end to Tolstoy's dying Ivan Ilych wrong? Are we to laugh at or admire Flaubert's Felicite, the saintly but ludicrous possessor of A Simple Heart, because she thinks only of the good of others? How is it that so altruistic a being survives while those who exploit her die young?

In a more advanced class I called Paradise Lost and Regained: The Topic of Eden in Major English Authors, Darwin was a presence again, but here not in terms of the doctrine of natural selection and the survival of the fittest, but as a synecdoche for the problem of knowledge. After looking at Eden as it figures in two of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare's Winter's Tale, and Milton's complete epic, my students and I took a great leap forward and landed in 1859, the year of both The Origin of Species and of George Eliot's Mill on the Floss.

Gary Hentzi had demonstrated during the Darwin faculty seminars that George Eliot had read Darwin carefully. But Middlemarch was published 12 years after The Origin of Species. Collaborating on The Mill on the Floss with John Wahlert, I found that the earlier novel shows how alive Mary Ann Evans was to the same geological debates that had fueled Darwin's own thinking about what was known as Development, not Evolution. A new book just published by the University of California Press called Wordsworth and the Geologists suggests how rich a field for study this eighth version of pastoral is. One of the great intellectual tasks of the Romantic and Victorian writers was to chart the growth of their own minds. Not surprisingly, they saw the relevance of Lyell's and Darwin's inquiries to their own; and in a sense, it drove them to despair.

You will remember that The Mill on the Floss ends with a tragic and critically notorious flood. I have always felt that Eliot's frequent allusions to Genesis amply prepare for this flood, as does the young Maggie's early explanation of how you test a difficult woman: "if she swims, she's a witch, and if she's drowned--and killed, you know--she's innocent." Well, Maggie's innocent and killed, you know.

But added to these sources of moral information is Stephen Guest's learned discussion of "Buckland's Treatise," one of The Bridgewater Treatises on the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God as Manifested in the Creation. Writing in 1836, the "wonderful geological" story that Buckland tells is an attempt to shore up the truth of Genesis. Eliot introduces Stephen into the novel by having him sing duets from Haydn's Creation with Lucy; and Haydn's text, of course, is Book 7 of Paradise Lost, in which the angel Raphael describes to Adam and Eve the creation of the world and all its glories.

One of the questions I set my students on their final was:

Milton, the last great writer of the Renaissance, and George Eliot, a typical writer of the Victorian Age, puzzle over the proper limits of human knowledge by reflecting on the scientific accomplishments of their eras. Satan entering Eden, for instance, is compared to "them who sail/ Beyond the Cape of Hope" (IV.160-61) and Mr. Glegg notices "remarkable coincidences between . . . zoological phenomena and the great events of that time" (p. 132, Book I, 7th paragraph of Chapter 12). Compare and contrast the approach each writer takes to these accomplishments by selecting one or two other examples from each text that relate the human struggles of their characters to the great discoveries of their times, explaining the connection each writer makes between the human and the scientific.

Having begun this course myself with the sense that the Edenic myth is the root of all Western tragedy, I was surprised to realize that each of the exemplary works I had chosen promise, instead, redemption; for Milton in particular, of course, the fall was fortunate. Satan may be damned, as his sailing around the Cape of Hope underscores, but navigation, science, and the independent human mind are blessings. Knowledge was worth the loss of Eden.

But not for George Eliot, or Maggie, or the Victorians. Darwin and Darwinian ideas seem to have undercut the sense that human beings can heal themselves and their flawed worlds.

One of the questions I raised with John Wahlert was what we know about non-Western responses to the theory of evolution and the disturbing consequences for the human self-image. Let me now partly answer my own concern: in Naguib Mahfouz's semi- autobiographical portrait of the intellectual Kamal in his trilogy of novels about the transformation of Cairo in the twentieth century, his protagonist starts out as a devout student of the Qur'an. His growth to intellectual maturity coincides with Egypt's struggle for independence. Egypt and Kamal's family experience the same crisis in different registers. Kamal's has two activist nephews, one a Marxist and one a Muslim fundamentalist. The dilemma is clear: one must choose either Science or Religion. Kamal's own loss of faith is the direct result of his introduction to Darwin. The tragedy of the human family and the tragedy of Mahfouz's characters are aligned. Having just read an article written by Kamal in an avant-garde magazine, the failing patriarch confronts his son in horror.

"What sect does this Darwin belong to?". . . . In a humble voice, Kamal said, "Darwin was an English scientist who lived a long time ago." At this point, the mother's voice piped up shakily: "God's curse on all the English."

For the West, Darwin as a literary trope stands for atheism and a brutal view of human origins; for the Islamic world, it is even worse. He is English.

These are literary topics that demand fuller investigation. I am grateful to the Darwin Seminar for making me notice the name Darwin every time I see it now. It remains one of the most powerful weapons available to the modern writers, encapsulating a world of ideas. I am aware that I have hardly begun to elucidate those ideas, either here or in the classroom. But I know that Kamal lies, as Mahfouz says he does, when he tries to defend himself before his father:

"Will you eventually teach this theory to your pupils?"
"Certainly not! I'll teach literature, and there's no connection between that and scientific theories."


Return to:

Faculty page
Darwin and Darwinism home page


Last updated 1 August 1998 (PB/JHW)