Evolutionary Feminism, Popular Romance, and Frank Norris's 'Man's Woman.'

By Civello, Paul | Studies in American Fiction, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

Evolutionary Feminism, Popular Romance, and Frank Norris's 'Man's Woman.'


Civello, Paul, Studies in American Fiction


The late nineteenth century was a period of intense ideological struggle-in fact, a period of several struggles that often overlapped and intersected. The well-known clash between evolution and Christianity, for example, has tended to obscure a less conspicuous battle within the evolutionary camp itself that pitted Darwin and his supporters against evolutionary-minded advocates for woman's emancipation. These late nineteenth-century feminists took issue with the conclusions Darwin had reached in The Descent of Man, using the same evidence he had adduced to support his contention that woman was the inferior sex to advance their own arguments that she was in fact equal with or even superior to man. But like most ideological struggles, this "scientific" one over gender took place largely on a discursive battlefield, and therefore incorporated and was incorporated by still other discourses that, on the surface, appeared to have little to do with it -- most notably, those of popular romance and the emerging narrative mode that has come to be called literary naturalism. Although locked in their own ideological struggle over literary purpose and value, most writers in these two literary forms embraced the same culturally dominant gender ideology that Darwin had. And so a writer like Frank Norris, a naturalistic writer with a strong sense of literary purpose that expressed itself in rebellion against the genteel tradition and the popular, sentimental romance, found himself in an ideological quandary, a struggle between a rebellious literary and a culturally-sanctioned gender ideology that were at odds with one another. His work, and in particular the recurrent character-type he called the "man's woman," highlights the complex interactions between competing ideologies and their discursive expressions, becoming a site in which Darwinian, feminist, and popular representations struggle.

In The Descent of Man (1871), Darwin elaborated his theory of sexual selection which he had only sketched in The Origin of Species (1859) and, more important, extrapolated it to human behavior and human biological history. Sexual selection, unlike natural selection, did not involve the struggle for existence, but the "struggle between the males for the possession of the females."(1) The female, as the passive agent in this process, acted in the same capacity as did the environment in natural selection; she chose or "selected" those males that were most appealing and whose attributes would therefore be passed on to their progeny. Darwin argued that sexual selection, although significantly altered in modern society since the male now acted as the "selector," played a major role in the differentiation of the sexes. As a result, man, as the sex actively involved in the struggle, had become superior to woman both physically and intellectually. Competition had produced greater variation among men than women -- a sign to Darwin of biological superiority -- as well as made man stronger, more tenacious, and more cunning. Physical superiority, in other words, was not enough; in the competition for females, Darwin reasoned, "mere bodily strength and size would do little for victory, unless associated with courage, perseverance, and determined energy," as well as with "the higher mental faculties, namely, observation, reason, invention, or imagination."(2) Man, he concluded, is therefore "more courageous, pugnacious, and energetic than woman, and has a more inventive genius" (p. 557). To bolster his argument, Darwin appealed to the "evidence" exhibited in modern civilization: "The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shewn by man's attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman -- whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands" (p. 564).

Darwin did, however, grant a few concessions to woman's worth. He noted that man's competitiveness passed "too easily into selfishness," and that woman, due to her maternal instincts, possessed "greater tenderness and less selfishness" (p. …

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