Lamarckism and the Construction of Transcendence in the House of Mirth

Article excerpt

Like fossil bones stellating a cliff, Edith Wharton's keen interest in evolution appears throughout her works. Critics often note her debt to Darwin (1) and have placed her in the context of literary naturalism. (2) Her narrative patterns, tropes, and even titles like "The Descent of Man" or "The Greater Inclination" (3) come from her readings among the evolutionists--not only Darwin but Spencer, Huxley, Haeckel, and George Romanes, among many others from the "wonder-world of nineteenth century science" (Wharton, Backward 94). Near the end of her life, Wharton wrote that it was "hopeless to convey to a younger generation the first overwhelming sense of cosmic vastnesses which such 'magic casements' let into our little geocentric universe" (Backward 94). Wharton had little trouble with the concept that humans were not special acts of creation but descended from animals, or that the mind evolved like the body through material processes. Instead of describing this philosophical shift as a diminution, she writes of wonder, magic, and cosmic vastnesses in the plural, magnifying the sense of expansion. This enlargement refers to more than the gaining of new knowledge. It shows Wharton's grasp of how naturalistic evolution could redefine an individual's prospects for transcendence.

The Lamarckian theory of evolution helps to explain Wharton's perspective more clearly than a study of Darwin's influence alone. The emphasis upon Darwin follows the grain of most literary studies that address the topic of evolution, (4) yet an alternative theory affected Wharton profoundly. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, concepts associated with Lamarck, such as habit, use, and the inheritance of acquired characters, were so pervasive that they even appeared in the writing of those who, like Edith Wharton, were "under the influence of the generally anti-Lamarckian orientation of European physical anthropology..." (Stocking 244).

Lamarckian theory provided Wharton with something crucial: a link between science and her most cherished belief, which she described as "continuity, that 'sense of the past' which enriches the present and binds us up with the world's great stabilising traditions of art and poetry and knowledge" (Wharton, French 97). It created this link by explaining how culture relates to the individual body. In Ontogeny and Phylogeny (1977), Stephen Jay Gould examines the concept that ontogeny (the individual's developmental history) recapitulates phylogeny (the evolutionary history of a species) and discerns a common logic in Lamarckist thought: that heredity functions as a form of memory. Organisms acquire traits through repeated usage, similar to learning through repetition. In this light, instincts are behaviors "impressed so indelibly into memory, that the germ cells themselves are affected and pass the trait to future generations. If behavior can be first learned and then inherited as instinct, then morphological features might be acquired and inherited in an analogous way" (Gould 96). Thus, both physical and behavioral traits represent a type of memory retained across generations.

The existence of such a memory implies a larger, collective organism: the species or race. What transcendence is available in a strictly naturalistic world? In Wharton's philosophy, the individual finds transcendence when it ceases to be a self-contained unit, like a little geocentric universe, and joins the race in its vast extension across time through descent. This "new vision" made the world seem "more wonderful, the problem more interesting, the moral obligation more stern and ennobling" to Wharton, (5) since both individual and society now had a much larger significance, an evolutionary significance; what one generation attained would be inherited by the next, altering the species. In Wharton's version of Lamarckism, physiological inheritance includes not only the transmission of physical characters but also the acquisitions of behavior in the context of culture, with cultural achievement as the highest spiritual expression. …