Darwinism and Evolution in Woodlanders Essay

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Thomas Hardy's The Woodlanders was published in 1887, a few years after the death of Charles Darwin. However, the novel was set in the middle of the 19th century, in about the same year that Darwin published On the Origin of the Species. Hardy may not have selected his setting arbitrarily. The Woodlanders has often been read within the context of Darwinian influences in society and literature. However, literary critics tend to emphasize the fusion between Romantic and Darwinian depictions of nature in The Woodlanders to show how Hardy drew from Darwin to develop his characters and themes. Irvine, for example, claims Hardy was an "evolutionary pessimist," and this is certainly apparent in The Woodlanders, which provides an overtly pessimistic view of human nature but especially of patriarchy (625). In fact, Hardy's The Woodlanders shows that while Darwinian principles of evolution sometimes favor members of the species with no moral scruples, in the end the survival of the fittest showcases the strengths of those who were previously of the subordinate social classes, people like Grace and Marty in The Woodlanders. Although social Darwinism is usually used to perpetuate injustice and inequality, a deconstruction of social Darwinism that is applied to Thomas Hardy's The Woodlanders shows how the author's "evolutionary pessimism" is paralleled by an ironic optimism.

Social Darwinism has misappropriated Darwinian theory of evolution by using the theory to justify the subjugation of non-whites and women. On the contrary, a deconstruction of social Darwinism can be located in the theories of Karl Marx, who wrote concurrently to Darwin. Hardy's novel The Woodlanders locates itself as a Marxist revision of social Darwinism. The Woodlanders, like Marx, actually show that evolution will favor the subjugated in due time. However, in deft literary fashion, Hardy practically tricks his readers into thinking that he is assuming a more classically Darwinian approach to literature. This is most notably viewed in the character of Edgar Fitzpiers. On the surface, Fitzpiers is everything a father could want for a son-in-law, and therefore ideal for the propagation of the species through his daughter: the propagation of the family bloodline. Through the process of "natural" selection in a patriarchal society, the father selects the socially appropriate mate for his daughter based on the same superficial characteristics attractive mates might have in the wild: more impressive plumage, or being plumper and therefore perceived of as being healthier. In the case of a human being in Hardy's society, a desirable mate for the process of natural social selection would be someone of the highest possible social class. In the Melbury case, their social class status is not high enough whereby they can select any mate they want. The family must select from a group of potential mates for Grace based on their best physical features, and in Little Hintock, that ends up being Edgar Fitzpiers. Fitzpiers "represents a very old family," which means that his bloodline is solid (Hardy 57). Even Giles cannot help but notice that Fitzpiers is "handsome and gentlemanly," and therefore possesses the qualities necessary for social evolutionary success in a stratified society (Hardy 61). Hardy leads the reader to believe that Fitzpiers will be the fittest match for his daughter based on his being of a strong physical stock.

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As a 19th century marriage is certainly supposed to result in childbirth, Hardy even implies the physical and biological evolution in the arrangement between Edgar and Grace.

However, Hardy is about to spin the concept of social Darwinism on its heels, to reveal his "evolutionary pessimism" in addition to a "romantic maladjustment," (Irvine 625). In Darwin's evolutionary proof, Hardy saw a "cruelly indifferent universe," that could be at once beautiful to behold with the eyes, but ethically amoral. The nice guy never wins in a Darwinist world, and Hardy knew that. This is why The Woodlanders focuses on the failed romance between the two lovers that should be together, as well as the failed opportunities for the nice guy, represented by Giles Hintock, to physically propagate the species and therefore turn humanity into a kinder, softer, gentler race. Nature is not about moving towards ethical integrity or social justice, as Hardy shows through his Darwinist social lens. On the contrary, nature is about moving towards power, strength, and violence, because it is the strong, powerful, virulent, and violent who win wars and win women. This is certainly the case in The Woodlanders. The "handsome and gentlemanly" Fitzpiers turns out to be cruel, deceptive, and manipulative. His self-centeredness works to his favor; he gets exactly what he wants. He acts in an animalistic fashion sexually, propagating his seed into as many women has he can find -- as in nature, few species are monogamous because monogamy does not necessarily ensure the survival of the species. Although he cannot admit as much due to the Victorian social constraints on polygamy, Fitzpiers intuitively wants to be like the alpha male in any other species and sleeps with at least three women during the course of The Woodlanders. Ironically, though, none of these sexual encounters bears fruit -- which is Hardy's coyly sarcastic way of showing that men like Fitzpiers might get ahead in the short-term but in the long run, their features may not be as evolutionary desirable. Hardy did trick the reader, though, into thinking that at least one of Fitzpiers's encounters would result in the conceiving of a child. The reader is relieved that it did not, which is why Hardy might not be as much of a pessimist as Irvine would have believed.

The Woodlanders actually hints at an ironic revision of social Darwinism from a Marxist perspective. The person who gets the last laugh at the end of The Woodlanders is one of the weakest….....

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Works Cited

Hardy, Thomas. The Woodlanders. Retrieved online: http://pinkmonkey.com/dl/library1/digi249.pdf

Irvine, William. "The Influence of Darwin on Literature." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 103, No. 5 (Oct. 15, 1959), pp. 616-628

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