[Gary Hentzi]

Darwin & the 19th Century English Novel

Gary P. Hentzi
Department of English

I have benefited enormously from my participation in the Darwin seminar and the various related activities that I've been involved in over the last few years, not least of which has been the effort of integrating this material into my classes. Darwin is now, for example, a familiar and important figure in parts of English 2850, which is the second half of our survey of Great Works of Literature, covering the historical period from the seventeenth century to the present, as well as in an upper level elective on the nineteenth-century English novel (English 4320), where he has always been a significant presence. Moreover, I have taught a Feit Seminar on the subject of Darwin and Darwinism along with John Wahlert and Susan Tenenbaum, in which we devoted extensive attention to the ways in which literary works register the shock--in some cases crippling, in others enabling-of the work of Darwin and other early theorists of evolution.

Elsewhere on this web site, I have posted a short essay on a few of the extraordinary number of Victorian and Edwardian writers who were significantly affected by their knowledge of Darwin--Alfred Tennyson, George Eliot, Edmund Gosse--and on those contemporary scholars, such as Gillian Beer and George Levine, who have contributed to our understanding of the relationship between literature and science in the period. Rather than rehearse that same information here, I would simply like to mention one other novel that we read in the Feit Seminar, E.M. Forster's Howards End (1910), which can serve as an example of one of the many ways in which theories of evolution appear in English literature. The businessman Henry Wilcox, who will marry Margaret Schlegel, is conversing with her sister Helen.

     ". . . There always have been rich and poor. I'm no fatalist. Heaven forbid! But our civilization is molded by great impersonal forces" (his voice grew complacent; it always did when he eliminated the personal) "and there always will be rich and poor. You can't deny it" (and now it was a respectful voice) "and you can't deny that, in spite of all, the tendency of civilization has on the whole been upward."
     "Owing to God, I suppose," flashed Helen.
     He stared at her.
     "You grab the dollars. God does the rest."
     It was no good instructing the girl if she was going to talk about God in that neurotic modern way. Fraternal to the last, he left her for the quieter company of Mrs. Munt. . . .
     Helen looked out at the sea.
     "Don't even discuss political economy with Henry," advised her sister. "It'll only end in a cry."
     "But he must be one of those men who have reconciled science with religion," said Helen slowly. "I don't like those men. They are scientific themselves, and talk of survival of the fittest, and cut down the salaries of their clerks, and stunt the independence of all who may menace their comfort, but yet they believe that somehow good--it is always that sloppy 'somehow'--will be the outcome, and that in some mystical way the Mr. Basts of the future will benefit because the Mr. Basts of today are in pain."
     "He is such a man in theory. But oh, Helen, in theory"
     "But oh, Meg, what a theory!" (192)

This passage deals specifically with the facile tendency to identify science with religion, allowing the two to shore each other up in the unholy unity of social Darwinism, which is by this point in history a familiar enough ideological position to be introduced only by conversational allusion. From a weapon of truth against the rigidities of traditional dogma, science has become part of the support system of an aggressively expanding capitalist imperialism, like the "ordinary surface scum of ledgers and polished counters" in the offices of Wilcox's Imperial and West African Rubber Company.

There is, of course, much more to be said about this novel. It stages, in an almost overly schematic fashion, the conflict between some of the less appealing tendencies of business and the needs of individual human beings; and in passages like the one quoted above, it also suggests ways that theories of evolution have been swept into this conflict and made to serve efforts far removed from the disinterested pursuit of scientific knowledge. Plainly, both are issues worthy of special attention from our students.

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Last updated 27 August 1998 (GH)