The Descent of Love: Darwin and the Theory of Sexual Selection in American Fiction, 1871-1926

By Bert Bender | Go to book overview

8. The Teeth of Desire: The Awakening
and The Descent of Man

"A Rich Mine of Facts"

In her developing studies of courtship and marriage, Kate Chopin began rather early to mine The Descent of Man for materials that she could use in her daring feminist critique of modern love. As we have seen in W. D. Howells's scenes of courting seals and of "love antics and dances," and in Henry James's scene at the music hall in The Bostonians, for example, a number of writers were quick to exploit the possibilities that the Galaxy had remarked on in its brief notice of The Descent of Man (in March 1871): "Whatever may be thought of Mr. Darwin's conclusions as to the origin of man, his book will be found a rich mine of facts, entertaining and curious on the highest questions of natural history! Chopin was neither the first nor the last to mine this source--as other writers in other contexts had worked biblical and mythological sources for their own plots or "facts." As I will explain in Chapter 12, Edith Wharton, for example, would continue to work the Darwinian mine well into the twentieth century. Among the several highly regarded novelists whose work I trace in The Descent of Love, however, none was more inventive in unearthing and transforming the "facts" of Darwin's natural history than Kate Chopin.

The Awakening is her tour de force in this kind of work, but as an effort in literary mining, it is only an extensive development of the technique she had mastered in "The Story of an Hour," three years before she began the novel. In this early, exploratory work she discovered a particular vein to which she would return in The Awakening--chapter 14 of The Descent of Man, a key chapter in which Darwin introduces and answers the "question which has an all important bearing on sexual selection, namely, does every male of the same species equally excite and attract the female? or does she exert a choice, and prefer certain males?" (2: 99). If chapters 3 and 5 of The Descent of Man were Howells's favorites because they ex

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