Article Expert: Gillian Beer’s “Descent and Sexual Selection: Women and Narrative” and “Finding a Scale for the Human: Plot and Narrative in Hardy’s Novels”

In “Descent and Sexual Selection: Women and Narrative” Gillian Beer states, “During the 1870s and 1880s…further implications of evolutionary theory became apparent, particularly the social and psychological implications of Darwin’s theories and their bearing on relationships between men and women” (446). Beer discusses how Darwin’s The Descent of Man (1871) and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1870) “brought humankind openly into the evolutionary debate and emphasized not only natural—that is unwilled—selection, but also sexual selection” (446).

Beer notes that questions such as, “[W]hat emotions, values, and reflex actions help the individual and the race survive?” and “What [is] the role of women, whose progenitive powers physically [transmit] the race?” and “How did relationships between men and women subserve generation and development?” began to be raised (446).

Beer discusses Darwin’s assertions that in “in contrast to all other species…among humankind the male dominates choice” (Beer 447). Beer quotes Darwin’s statement, “’Man is more powerful in body and mind than woman, and in the savage state he keeps her in a far more abject state of bondage than does the male of any other animal’” (447). Beer points out “The idea of sexual selection made for a complex confusion of biological and social determinants in descent, transmission and sexroles” (450). Finally, Beer reasserts, “The intersection of evolutionary theory and psychological theory became newly important” (450).

In Beer’s “Finding a Scale for the Human: Plot and Narrative in Hardy’s Novels,” Beer states, “In this argument I want to explore a more general question to do with the relationship of plot and writing. Most commentators have emphasized the point of connection between Hardy and Darwin in terms of pessimism, a sense that the laws of life are themselves flawed” (Beer 451 [emphasis mine]). Beers argues that, “Hardy’s texts pay homage to human scale by ceasing as the hero or heroine dies. The single lifespan is no longer an absolute, but polemical…It opposes evolutionary meliorism or pessimism by making the single generation carry the freight of signification” (452). Beer’s argument emphasizes the importance of Darwin’s influence in Hardy’s works.

Beer notes, “In reading Hardy’s work we often find a triple level of plot generated: the anxiously scheming and predictive plot of the characters’ making; the optative plot of the commentary, which often takes the form ‘Why did nobody’ or “had somebody…’, and the absolute plot of blind interaction” (453). Beer adds to this that, “The emphasis” in Hardy’s works is “upon systems more extensive than life span of the individual and little according to his needs is essential” (453).

Finally, because of the limit to the length of my analysis, it is crucial to note that for Hardy, according to Beer, “Sexual Joy is always dangerous, not only because of the possibility of loss, but because it is linked to generation, the law which rides like a juggernaut over and through the individual and lifespans” (454).

My reaction to Beer’s articles, particularly layered one on top of the other, as the Norton’s 3rd Critical Edition of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles has published them, is that Beer writes a powerful argument in terms of the way Hardy’s works must be read. Indeed, when we read Tess we cannot escape the systems the author has carefully laid in place, the generational limitations Tess is bound to and by, and the implications of male selection in Tess’ life and in that of her mother’s life before her.

Vocabulary Critical to the Reading of Beer:

meliorism: “The doctrine that the world, or society, may be improved and suffering alleviated through rightly directed human effort; a policy embodying this doctrine” (OED).

optative: “Relating to choice, or expressing desire; relating to the future and to the decisions it involves” (OED).

Works Cited

Beer, Jillian. “Descent and Sexual Selection: Women and Narrative.” Tess of the D’Urbervilles: An Authoritative Text Backgrounds and Sources Criticism 3rd Edition. Ed. Scott Elledge. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991. 446-451. Print.

Beer, Jillian. “Finding a Scale for the Human: Plot and Narrative in Hardy’s Novels.” Tess of the D’Urbervilles: An Authoritative Text Backgrounds and Sources Criticism 3rd Edition. Ed. Scott Elledge. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991. 451-460. Print.

“meliorism, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2015. Web. 10 September 2015.

“optative, adj. and n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2015. Web. 10 September 2015.

Submitted by Amy M.

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