Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Naturally-Selected Narrative: Darwin's Aesthetic Directive

…Natural Selection, as we shall hereafter see, is a power incessantly ready for action, and is immeasurably superior to man’s feeble efforts, as the works of Nature are to those of Art.

- Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (40)

In On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin methodically decentralizes the individual, reframing him within the scope of species. Each individual serves only as a contribution in the chain of existence. If an anomaly appears in the chain, it is wiped out in the next wave of death and reproduction. Only through agreement of the masses can change be effected; only through an abundance of anomalies over an abundance of time can the once-unique characteristic develop into a new variety.

Darwin’s is an aesthetic of the aggregate. The theory of Natural Selection systematically devalues the singular, in terms of that single beetle or blade of grass. However, Darwin faced the problem of how to narrate the story of a group to a readership steeped in individualism. In order to pitch such a difficult idea to his reading public, Darwin borrows from novelistic tradition the singular glorified hero. Though the individual plays no part in Darwin’s theory, he dramatizes the phylogenic history of an entire species (successful or extinct) through an individual. “[E]ach organic being,” Darwin explains dramatically to his reader (using the singular), “has to struggle for life, and to suffer great destruction” (50). The reader imagines again that “humblest parasite” (39) struggling through the English garden, gallantly taking on the world, unencumbered by hubris. Anticipating again his novel-reading audience’s need for a happy ending, he goes on: “When we reflect on this struggle, we may console ourselves with the full belief, that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply” (50). Like a Victorian novel, twists and turns, murders and misdeeds, death and violence all lead to an incongruously happy ending––marriage and baby, surviving and multiplying.

Slow evolution over millions of years hardly makes for a gripping story; as a narrator, Darwin compresses deep time into a battlefield moment, where the “war of nature” kills “prompt[ly].” Darwin narrates Natural Selection as a battle of individuals, (anticipating modern visions of social Darwinism), but his story is, in fact, one of group survival, utterly unconcerned with the singular travails of that “humblest parasite.” A manipulative storyteller who understands the egocentrism of his readers, Darwin uses the drama of individual survival to draw in the audience.

Darwin’s is an aesthetic of sameness. To see the history of life in deep time, as Darwin does, is to see each single member of a species as just a grainy copy of all the others. In a world of copies, unique individuals no longer exist; they either perish completely or they are one in a multitude, moving “towards perfection” (307). The unique, a synonym for anomalous and the Romantic view of the distinct character of every soul, does not exist. Over time, and over space, each individual’s life story vanishes in the face of the story of species.

A novel that appeared in the same year as The Origin of Species also tells the story of group survival veiled in individual drama. The first serial installment of Wilke Collins’s The Woman in White appeared on November 26 of 1859, just two days after Darwin’s bestseller was released. As in the “war of nature,” the characters of Collins’s novel transgress social and moral boundaries, commit murders, and manipulate others, yet, in the end, “the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.” Against all odds, “the Heir of Limmeridge” (Collins 643) is born to the happy triumvirate, Walter, Laura, and Marian and the group flourishes. An orthographic (and near-genetic) copy of Walter Hartright, the newborn bears his father’s name in promotion of the community and of sameness. The redundancy of the heir’s name reinforces Darwin’s proposition that not only does the group ensure survival, their lack of individuality does, too.

In Collins’s narrative world, as in Darwin’s Nature, the unique life, while interesting, is cut short. In addition to promoting the aggregate, Collins’s novel promotes sameness. Whereas Count Fosco, an unmistakable character whose mere description serves to identify him to strangers (“I remember him, sir!” says the fly driver; “The fattest gentleman as ever I see” [630]), perishes regardless of his bodily strength, Laura Fairlie, who is so without individuality that her identity is easily mistaken, survives regardless of her frailty of body. A different kind of power dynamic dominates the novel. It disregards singular strength and punishes uniqueness. It is the structure of Natural Selection.

In the face of a restriction on both the singular and the unique, it follows that the artist, who legitimizes individual imagination, is put into jeopardy. Romanticism boasted of the artist’s ability to communicate a universal experience, proving that man’s creations are a true expression of his unique sentiments. However, if the new order of narrative and natural survival leaves only the unoriginal standing, the Romantic poet must fall into the ranks of the extinct. The Woman in White, a narrative embodiment of Darwin’s skeptical view of a singular Creator, adapts to the new order. Because a story of an individual is as intricate as that of a species, because ontogeny has as many missing links and dead ends as phylogeny, singular omniscience and unique individuals become impossibilities. In his novel, Collins mocks those who claim omniscience, as Darwin mocks man’s attempt to best nature in his selection of species and God’s attempt at creative perfection. To both storytellers the narrative rests not in man’s labored creation but in external evidence and natural selection, from which story emerges. Through character, content, and form Collins rejects the novelistic singular in favor of the naturalistic plural, the unique in favor of the copy, and omniscience in favor of corroboration. Ultimately, the aesthetic system of The Woman in White follows the scientific system in On the Origin of Species, taking Darwin’s suggestion that art function more like the works of Nature.

The works of man and the works of nature

The same zeitgeist of scientific exploration that led to Darwin’s Origin of Species influenced the arts towards to emulate the works of nature (This may not actually be true. --AG). At the heels of Romanticism and its projection of human feeling onto nature, Collins does just the opposite, projecting nature’s brutality onto the workings of mankind. Curiously, Darwin and Collins alike compare the works of man and the works of nature as two separate modes of creation, rather than considering man an element of nature. Though the later publication of The Descent of Man applies natural selection to man, On the Origin of Species attempts to keep the two separate. The opposition of the works of man and those of nature ensures that man and nature were seen as competitors at the time of writing, and therefore can now be fairly judged against one another, even though the comparison seems to run contrary to logic.

Darwin forces his readers to measure the works of Nature against the works of man through implication. The opposition between man and Nature is implied in the title of his work: the modifier by Means of Natural Selection tacitly constructs an opposition between Natural and “human.” Since the act of selection requires evaluation and projection, it requires intelligence. Man may select a course of action or a necktie based on his options and his goals. The term “Natural Selection” gives Nature the same agency as man. Likewise, Darwin draws man and Nature into confrontation in his chapter headings. Following the first chapter “Variation under Domestication,” which casts man as a central character, is “Variation under Nature,” a passing of the narrative baton that holds dispute under formal cohesion. Ultimately, the parallel structure of the chapter titles and their opposing content ensures Darwin’s intended comparison. The superiority of Natural Selection to man’s efforts in breeding (dogs, pigeons) forms the basis of the comparison for Darwin.

Darwin insults man’s efforts outright, a tone of pity in his words for the inadequacy of man’s creations. In his chapter introducing Natural Selection, Darwin explains why he frames his work within the context of the Domestic Selection: "Man can act only on external and visible characters … [Nature] can act on every internal organ … Man selects only for his own good; Nature only for that of the being which she tends. … [Man] does not allow the most vigorous males to struggle for the females. He does not rigidly destroy all inferior animals … He often begins his selection by some half-monstrous form" (53). Here, the writer lists everything man does wrong and nature does right. Halfway through the paragraph, the syntax shifts from stating what man does to simply stating what he does not do, allowing the reader to tacitly assume that each of man’s actions are missteps. At the end of his list, Darwin laments the state of man: “How fleeting are the wishes and efforts of man! how short his time! and consequently how poor will his products be, compared with those accumulated by nature” (53). Aside from making for an exciting read, the use of exclamation points and elevated language (particularly “fleeting”) evokes a sense of both pity and inevitability, as if man’s creations were as doomed to failure as Oedipus Rex. While Darwin clearly states the superiority of the “products” of Nature over those of man, it is unclear whether or not he thinks man can learn from the products of Nature. Surely, he explains the ‘dos and don’ts’ of selection; perhaps this suggests man can use the laws of Natural Selection to improve his own Domestic Selection, at least superficially.

To push Darwin’s critique further, man’s “products,” which above refers to domestic varieties, can be extended to include man’s creative products––art, literature, and other acts of creation. Since Darwin equally calls the works of the divine Creator into question, it is only natural that he should also question the works of earthly creators.

Additionally, Darwin explicitly links breeding to the fine arts, completing the comparison: “Natural Selection as we shall hereafter see, is a power incessantly ready for action, and is as immeasurably superior to man’s feeble efforts, as the works of Nature are to those of Art” (40). If “the works of Nature” are so superior to “those of Art,” perhaps artists, like breeders, can learn from Nature to adapt. Collins does so in The Woman in White when his narrative takes up the patterns of Natural Selection.

The Problem of Creation

In his writing, Darwin poses a problem to creators of all kinds: if God’s creations are imperfect, man’s must be even more so. For Darwin, Nature begins as only a handful of imperfect forms created by God, that then “progress towards perfection” (307); that is, they evolve. If nature can improve endlessly upon the work of a singular divine Creator, how can man, a much less skillful creator, attempt perfection in art? Even when listing man’s poor choices in domestic selection, Darwin all but orders man to end his efforts and give over his work to the more accomplished breeder. How, then, can creation go on in a climate of anti-creationism?

In fiction, the skillful hand of the creator ensures the success of his creations. While Collins has carefully constructed his some few characters, he removes the creator from his narrative altogether. Collins simultaneously gains praise for creating believable characters while shifting the narrative responsibility to those characters, removing all artistry tied to the creator himself. Collins seems more like a scientist, gathering samples and specimens––examining the behaviors of species and gathering their bones. Thus, he effectively dodges the accusation of flawed creator, allowing the collected first-person and documentary narratives of his novel to govern themselves.

With the foundations for comparing Collins’s narrative to Darwin’s description of Natural Selection in place, the argument will proceed to describe Collins’s novel as a movement away from a focus on the singular hero, his unique disposition, and an omniscient narration in favor of the heroic ensemble, their general monotony, and the testimonial narration, all of which contribute to creating the aesthetic of Natural Selection.

The Absence of the Hero

Like Darwin’s own narrative in On the Origin of Species, The Woman in White is a group story paraded as that of an individual. Collins’s characters run counter to the typical heroes and heroines of the recently popular sentimental novel, unique individuals with stories to tell and sympathy to stir. Humanist protagonists lead bildungsroman existences centered on their individual struggles and triumphs. In turn, the typical novelistic narration follows that individual in omniscience, through her own voice or an outside narrator. Regardless of the point of view, the focus of the story remains the same: the individual, illustrated in all her glory, loving and losing in the human tradition. The specificity of her story, in its emotional and psychological extremes, allows the reader to identify with the protagonist, seeing in her a reflection of the reader and, by extension, a blueprint of all humanity.

No such singular hero exists in The Woman in White. Often the title character is most obviously the hero, but Anne Catherick, who the reader knows to be the Woman in White, is manipulated, used as a body double, and accidentally killed. Perhaps then, the reader thinks, her double is the hero and the title truly refers to Laura Fairlie. Contrary to the reader’s expectations, Laura lacks agency, leaving her, like the Woman in White, a pawn to be manipulated by some and saved by others. Marian Halcolme, while noble, decisive, and a key player in the plot to save Laura, is perhaps too guided by others to be the hero. Always an accessory to the crime, and always working for the survival of her half-sister, Marian would seem the archetypal sidekick, the second most likely hero. She even exhibits heroic change: over the course of the novel, Marian undergoes an apotheosis from the “ugly” (31) who, passed through the crucible of housework (441), becomes the “good angel of our lives” (643). If any hero exists, then it would be the character who notes the change in Marian and serves as a consistent link to the reader throughout the story.

Walter Hartright, then, could be seen as Collins’s unique individual, the coming-of-age hero who matures from wistful drawing master to determined leader and schemer. Love changes him, sympathy touches him, death scrapes by him, and dreams haunt him. His fits the external description of individuality: a tormented man, heroic in his commonness, touched by fellow feeling. He even occasionally addresses the reader as a narrator. “This is the story of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve,” (5) he begins. Hartright’s first line opens his testimony as a “story”; he sets up the romantic intrigue between “Woman” and “Man”, and he generally peaks the reader’s interest. Shortly, however, Hartright reveals his simultaneous position as socially conscious narrator, thereby uprooting his singularity as the hero figure. By consciously deflecting the narrative to the group, Walter shifts the story from one of his own life to one of the society around him. Hartright explains the format in objective terms: "When the writer of these introductory lines (Walter Hartright, by name) happens to be more closely connected than others with the incidents to be recorded, he will describe them in his own person. When his experience fails, he will retire from the position of narrator" (5). The implication that Walter’s experience does “fail” (for it is a “when,” not an “if”), leaves him powerless to tell a story alone. The individual, as well as the individual creation, must rely on others to “succeed,” when the singular fails.

The Group as Hero

In accordance with Walter’s deflected narration and Marian’s selfless motives, no individual hero exists but that of the group itself. Like Darwin’s dramatic narration of natural selection, that story of the masses through the norms of the individual hero, Collins’s collation of Laura, Marian, and Walter makes them function, in their multiplicity, as the novel’s hero. Living in domesticity “in the far East of London” (440) the group works like a pack, thinking and feeling as one. Having lived closely at Limmeridge, once they reunite in London, the threesome has already experienced pack mentality: “Living in such intimacy as ours,” Hartright explains, “no serious alteration could take place in any one of us which did not sympathetically affect the others” (66). Forming early in the novel, the multiplicitous hero suffers the trials of separation, identity confusion, and eventual affirmation through the birth of their heir, Walter Hartright.

Yet the mere formation of a cohesive pack does not ensure survival: antagonists also use the network of the pack to achieve their goals. Count Fosco, the alpha-antagonist uses his mental and physical dominance to draw together followers, as the alpha wolf would his pack. Fosco’s ease in training five white mice only showcases his facile manipulation of Percival Glyde, Madame Fosco, Frederick Fairlie, Mrs. Michelson, and Anne Catherick to secure his pecuniary position. While multiple parties benefit from the workings of Fosco, the benefit to others is not Fosco’s primary goal, but rather another means to an end. Though Fosco proudly declares his friendship and therefore his aid to Glyde (“you have appeals to my friendship; and the duties of friendship are sacred to me” [336]), self-promotion, rather than pack promotion, guides his every move. Even Frederick Fairlie, the least sociable of all characters, thinks Fosco, “so extremely considerate in all his movements!” (356). Marian remarks on his character, “The man’s slightest actions had a purpose of some kind at the bottom of every one of them” (314). Fosco later corroborates the statement by claiming “with [his] whole heart … the fidelity of the portrait [presented in Marian’s diary]” (343). Fosco’s “purpose” is, of course, to claim Fairlie’s fortune for himself by process of elimination. Fosco’s strained manipulation of others speaks to his self-serving motives. As leader of the core pack of Percival, Mme. Fosco, and himself, Fosco dictates the movements of others because the others look to him for the lead.

On the other hand, Walter, Laura, and Marian join together as equals tied by love and so attract additional individuals to willfully support their cause: Mr. Kyrle, Mr. Gilmore, Mrs. Clements, Pesca, and, eventually, the village of Limmeridge itself. The threesome all share alpha roles, forming a pack as Elias Canetti describes it: “[An individual] may be in the center, and then, immediately afterwards, at the edge again; at the edge and then back and the center” (quoted in Deleuze, et. al. 37). Hartright provides financial support, Marian the housework, and Laura the motivation. When Laura senses her contributions cannot be quantified like Marian’s and Walter’s, Hartright, knowing the pack mentality, sets her to work. Though Laura’s drawings, “poor, faint, valueless sketches” (490), could never bring in money, Hartright acknowledges her need to toil for her loved ones and feel useful by paying her accordingly. Were it not for Hartright’s enlivening deception, Laura would not have survived to keep the others motivated. All members of this pack work for the same goal (proof of Laura’s identity) and for one another.

Darwin’s inclusion of happiness in the formulation, only “the vigorous, the happy, and the healthy” can “survive and multiply,” seems gratuitous in the face of unfeeling nature. But, while Fosco attempts to please his underlings, they cannot be said to be truly happy, least of all Madame Fosco, whose tight-lipped obedience seems to hide “something dangerous in her nature” (219). On the other hand, the quiet understatement of love in the east London apartment contrasts Count Fosco’s boastful dedications of faith to his followers. Laura’s happiness, even attained through deception, allows her pack to survive in Darwin’s nature.

The Value of the Copy

Walter, Marian, and Laura share many more commonalities than Fosco and his followers. Mild-mannered yet determined, all three seem as content and as faceless as Laura herself (once Marian has felt the subduing effects of housework). Their lives meld into one another’s and their differences disappear. “After all that we three have suffered together,” Marian says, explaining their commonalities, “there can be no parting between us, till the last parting of all” (637). Hartright’s narration after his marriage to Laura also refers to life in the plural, suggesting the indistinguishable nature of happiness in triplicate: “The only event in our lives which now remains to be recorded…” (641). In Darwin’s natural world, commonality ensures survival. More than just the suggesting the similarities of Walter, Marian, and Laura, Collins dwells on the motif of copies.

Copies, both true duplicates and mere resemblances, present themselves throughout Collins’s novel in an attempt to efface the individual, both as the singular and the unique. He systematically confounds the value of the copy over the original. Most prominently, the title character of “the woman in white,” which can refer both to the young Anne Catherick as well as her half-sister Laura Fairlie, focalizes the reader’s attention on the central act of duplication. Doubtless, Anne Catherick would appear to be the singular woman in white, since Hartright refers to her as such (“the woman in white was gone” [27]) and each of the twenty times the phrase is mentioned in the novel, it refers clearly to the young Anne Catherick, whether in body or idea. Thus it seems linguistically, at least, that Anne Catherick is the true “woman in white,” and that Laura, the more prominent female in white, just happens to occasionally match the description. Laura is merely “dressed in plain white muslin,” (54) “a white figure (60), or “ the living image…of the woman in white,” (60) but is never directly referred to as a “woman in white.” Laura seems a poor copy of the woman in white, one who merely bears an uncanny resemblance to the original specter. However, arguably Laura is the original woman in white and Anne Catherick, the copy, since Laura’s mother dressed Anne in the signature “white frocks” (59) of Laura’s own childhood. With no true origin, “the woman in white,” could refer to both, either, or none; both Laura and Anne are copies of each other, by nature and by nurture.

Likewise, when Frederick Fairlie employs “two photographers” to “produc[e] sun-pictures of all the treasures and curiosities in his possession,” (201) the photographs are treated as if they were more valuable than the relics themselves. Affixed to “the finest cardboard,” and with “ostentatious red-letter inscriptions,” (201) the copies, according to Marian Halcolme’s description, command undue attention from Fairlie. Collins’s triple repetition of the inscription, “In the possession of Frederick Fairlie, Esquire,” (201, 202) communicates to the reader Fairlie’s interest in proliferating the knowledge of his possessions. Fairlie reveals later that the purpose of the photographs is to “[improve] the tastes of the Members [of the Institution at Carlisle],” which he considers “a great national benefit [to] his countrymen” (346). Safe but meaningless in his home, the etchings and sculptures venture out in duplicate to better the awful civilization Fairlie sees around him.

More central to the plot, the town registry containing Percival’s secret exists in duplicate. Again, the copy and not the original is valuable to Hartright in discovering Glyde’s illegitimacy. Unveiling the “duplicate” at Old Welmingham, Hartright’s “heart [gives] a great bound” because it lacks any mention of the marriage of Sir Felix Glyde and Cecilia Jane Elster, which had been forged into the original in Knowlesbury (“compressed at the bottom of the page” [512]). Glyde, blinded by the centrality of the original, ignored the copy’s power to survive.

In terms of natural selection, the threesome, the women in white, the photographed treasures, and the registry all have greater chances to survive, as none are absolute anomalies destined for extinction. Even the woman in white survives despite her own death; the disappearance of Anne Catherick only enforces the law of natural selection when Laura survives and returns to claim her inheritance.

The Failure of the Unique: Count Fosco

Within the world of the novel, all of The Woman in White is a copy. Collated not as a single creation, but rather as a book of duplicate documents, testimonies, and evidence, copied down letters, and repeated stories, the narrative could be reassembled at will by gathering together its various components. It exhibits no overwrought “plan of creation,” but rather a plan of assembly, with matter-of-fact footnotes included to ensure the plan’s transparency (345). The whole novel seems to reject art, with the exception of one character. Within the assembled documents, Count Fosco’s narratives call out to be published separately. In their overdone style, overused exclamations, and boisterous self-praise, his writings exemplify and mock the writer-artist as unique in his expressions.

The attempt to represent nature through overwrought hyperbole and challenge it through chemistry marks the ├╝ber-human hubris that leads to Fosco’s extinction in the novel. Count Fosco suffers from the bravado Darwin scorns in man’s attempts at artistry. Equally accomplished in chemistry and psychological deceit, Fosco manipulates nature (mineral and animal) and narrative for his own purposes. Ultimately, his portion of the narrative demonstrates the ineffectiveness of the individual story, the incompetence of man as singular creator.

Darwin says of the successful breeder, “We have seen that man … can adapt organic beings to his own uses” (40). Like Darwin’s man, “[selecting] only for his own good” (53) Fosco uses nature to benefit himself. Whereas Fosco’s science gives man power, Darwin’s takes it away. “Chemistry,” Fosco writes, “has always had irresistible attractions for me, from the enormous, the illimitable power which the knowledge of it confers. Chemists, I assert it emphatically, might sway, if they pleased, the destinies of humanity” (617). Fosco explains how chemists could change humanity: given a drug, Shakespeare would write “abject drivel”; Newton would simply “eat [the apple]”; Alexander the Great would “run for his life” (617). Rather than explaining how he could better society or best nature, Fosco relishes in his dreams of destroying great minds, sending mankind through a self-induced devolution. Reinforcing Darwin’s supposition that Natural Selection is “immeasurably superior” to the “efforts of man” (40), Fosco’s science opposes Darwin’s in its striving for failure and centralized power.

Just as he revels in the chemist’s omnipotence, the Count frequently praises the fine arts (including those from his own pen), always championing man. He sees the events of his life as a worthy subject for art: “Where is the modern Rembrandt who could depict our midnight procession? Alas for the Arts! alas for this most pictorial of subjects! the modern Rembrandt is nowhere to be found” (622). Fosco sees the absence of that “modern Rembrandt” as a loss to culture (“Alas for the Arts!”); he seems to revel in the creations of artists more than those of Nature. “What a situation!” he again boasts of his adventures. “I suggest it to the rising romance writers of England. I offer it, as totally new, to the worn-out dramatists of France” (626). No other character invokes the arts with as much verve as Fosco. In terms of his own artistic talents, Fosco praises his writing explicitly. In his account of the novel’s events, he writes, “I announced, on beginning it, that this narrative would be a remarkable document. It has entirely answered my expectations. Receive these fervid lines––my last legacy to the country I leave for ever” (629). Again, Fosco sees his story as “a remarkable document,” rather than the series of events that took place in reality. His “fervid lines,” and not his deeds form his “last legacy.” Fosco attempts to rewrite history, privileging the “works of man” over the “works of nature” in his unrealistic, overbearing style.

The performance of his narrative engrosses Fosco as he attempts to make his work as unique and identifiable as his own person. A spectacle before Hartright, the act of writing his testimony provides Fosco with an opportunity to demonstrate his individual talents in the most unique way possible: he “clear[s] his throat,” “[writes] with great noise,” and “[tosses each slip of paper] over his shoulder,” (609) before ending with a “ ‘Bravo!’ ” (610). The obvious performative nature of Fosco’s writing suggests its falsity and, correspondingly, the falsity of the individual, omniscient narrative. Even further, when the Count sits down to join together the slips of paper, he fastens them with “a bodkin and a piece of string” (610), as if to further manifest the presence and prominence of his own (obviously constructed) “narrative thread.” Then, like other men, Fosco identifies himself with a characteristic signature, though his can be both seen and heard. Walter hears “a sudden splutter of the pen, indicative of the flourish with which he signed his name” (609). Earlier his mere initial is described as “surrounded by a circle of intricate flourishes,” from which the reader can only surmise the flourish of the entire name (458). Fosco’s intricately drawn signature simultaneously embodies his elevation of the arts and his overbearing individuality.

Fosco’s declaration of narrative omniscience to the reader follows his dreams of controlling the world through chemistry: he withholds known information and adopts a familiarity with the reader expected only from a trusted narrator. “Curiosity may stop here, to ask for some explanation of those functions on my part,” the Count predicts his readers will wonder. He denies them, teasingly, happily withholding knowledge: “[D]iplomatic reserve forbids me to comply with [the request]” (614). Through numerous exclamations and parentheticals directed at the reader, Fosco attempts to gain his trust, manipulating the reader like Fosco does his followers or his mice. “Youths! I invoke your sympathy. Maidens! I claim your tears,” (628) Fosco both pleas and commands, both invoking and claiming as his own. Fosco’s overdone attempt at entertainment and originality makes him a caricature of artistry that illustrates perfectly Darwin’s critique of the arts as “feeble efforts.”

The Refusal of Omniscience and Artistry

Directly opposite Count Fosco’s claims of omniscience and artistic splendor lies the shrewd narrator’s attempt to defer all responsibility for creation, flawed as it is. Darwin himself, a creator and narrator, avoids claims of perfection from his introduction on: “The Abstract, which I now publish, must necessarily be imperfect. … No doubt errors will have crept in…” (1). Rejecting his role as the sole source of narrative, countless times, Darwin omits information, instead referring the reader to the external narrative of data. He admits, “No one can feel more sensible than I do of the necessity of hereafter publishing in detail all the facts, with references, on which my conclusions have been grounded; and I hope in a future work to do this“ (1). Later, though Darwin provides numerous detailed examples, the deferral remains: “I cannot here enter on the copious details,” (6) he remarks once. Again, the excuse returns: “To treat this subject at all properly, a long catalogue of dry facts should be given; but these I shall reserve for my future work” (29). As if to avoid hypocrisy by refusing to even attempt the perfection accomplished only through natural means, the author denies responsibility for creating the contents of his own text.

Collins, too, like Hartright above, claims no authorship over his work. The antithesis of Fosco, Collins does not sign his work with a flourish, nor reveal his singular narrative thread, clumsily poking through each page. In the 1860 preface to the book’s publication, Collins writes that telling the story in plural first-person “has afforded my characters a new opportunity of expressing themselves” (644). He generously nurses his readers’ view of the characters as “recognisable realities” (4) that have introduced the author to many friends, writing that the novel’s form allows the characters to “[express] themselves,” rather than writing that it allows him to express himself. Collins projects all responsibility for expression and therefore the artistry of writing onto his characters, “realities” that they are.

Additionally, Collins’s own characters echo Darwin’s reservations about art. Fosco shows a negative demonstration of praise for artistry and Hartright’s relationship with art is surprisingly ambivalent. Deftly, Collins draws lines of opposition between his characters and the arts. Walter Hartright, himself a “Teacher of Drawing,” maintains a curiously skeptical view of them (5). Considering his primary watercolor subject is landscapes, Hartright is ironically dismissive of Nature’s influence on man: “Admiration of those beauties of the of the inanimate world, which modern poetry so largely and so eloquently describes, is not, even in the best of us, one of the original instincts of our nature” (53). To him, admiration of Nature’s perfection is a learned behavior (“No uninstructed man or woman possesses it” [53]). By extension, his own artwork is merely a disinterested, paying exercise in reproduction, not an expression of human creativity. Even Laura Fairlie’s sketches he unsentimentally deems “valueless” (490). Hartright is not an artist, not a creator. Rather, he is a teacher of drawing––a benefit to others in society, a worker, but not one to express his individuality as a Romantic in ink and oil. Hartright relies not on the subjectivity of art, but rather on the objectivity of law to express the truths of experience.

Corroboration as Natural Law

Darwin ends his narrative with a phrase that suggests a new, somewhat paradoxical power system. It simultaneously rejects intelligent design while still implicating some governing force: “[E]ndless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved” (307). Those “beautiful,” “wonderful” forms in their superlative state would be seen by most God-fearing creationists as those “good” forms created in Genesis. The fact that these forms “have been, and are being, evolved,” and not created implies that, at their creation, the forms were imperfect––not (as) beautiful or wonderful. Again, Darwin states the fact more clearly when he writes, “all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection” (307). Ironically, the phrase’s form recalls a pilgrim’s urging towards divine will while its content rejects divine intention.

Though he restricts the talents of a singular Creator, Darwin tempers the opposite extreme. The insistence on passive voice (“have been, and are being”) restrains nature from self-serving anarchy; something governs the forms, though in this sentence the subject is ambiguous. Granted, a form cannot “evolve” itself, nor can the English language gracefully form an active construction of the phrase (“have evolved and are evolving”?). Still, we must respect the implications of Darwin’s carefully-chosen words. After all, he never directly uses the word atheism (and “God” appears only once [105]), but since readers have already inferred this concept, I will join the tradition of reading Darwin closely.

In fact, the forms are “being evolved” by the very subject of The Origin: law. As Darwin states in his conclusion, “[these forms] have all been produced by laws acting around us,” which he then lists (307). Perfection and good, therefore, come not from a Creator or from within the individual, but rather from the exertion of law.

In this vein, The Woman in White adopts law as its framework. Hartright relies on the law, in theory though not in practice, to prove his story. Though his writing is not directed to a jury (since that approach, being a “servant of the long purse,” [5] would fail), Hartright explicitly positions the reader as judge: “As the Judge might once have heard it, so the Reader shall hear it now,” he declares (5). Though the legal system has failed him, Walter still trusts in the principles of the law. For this reason, he states, “the story here presented [is] told by more than on pen, as the story of an offence against the laws is told in Court by more than one witness¬¬––with the same object, in both cases, to present the truth always in its most direct and most intelligible aspect” (5). The “object” of legal procedures, when executed faithfully, as Hartright understands it, is to reveal truth. Mrs. Michelson echoes this purpose in her statement, in which she explains, “my testimony is wanted in the interests of truth” (364). Law, and not art, brings truth.

Additionally, Laura’s reintroduction to Limmeridge House suggests a courtroom scene: lawyers, witnesses, evidence, and jury are all present. After “the proceedings,” (634) as Walter calls them, he asks the members of Limmeridge House, “Are you all of the same opinion [as Mr. Kyrle that the evidence is conclusive]?” (635) A jury functioning together as a singular judge, the tenants’ “opinion” is written by their shouts of approval.

Wilkie Collins’s Walter Hartright makes the reader responsible for creating the narrative. The goal of Hartright’s narrative, and his collection of the narratives of others, is to gain “public attention” (5) supposedly for the purpose of bringing justice and revealing truth. Ultimately Collins’s narrative is not just one of natural collaboration, but one of legal corroboration.

“No circumstance of importance, from the beginning to the end of the disclosure, shall be related on hearsay evidence” (5), he declares. According to Hartright’s strictly legal lens, Collins implies from the start that omniscient narratives are, themselves, hearsay. Though Hartright could easily have written the story in an omniscient voice with information gathered from his interviews, he chooses, instead, to reflect the standards of the law.

Just as Darwinian selection eradicates inconsistencies in favor of repetition, Collins’s legally minded narrative relies on the successful collation of multiple stories, judged by the reader as by a jury, to tell the truth. Only by interviewing multiple people and confirming multiple sources can Hartright piece together the story of the world around him.


These works of collaboration, though truly written by one author, reflect the developing viewpoint that, in light of Darwin’s claims about the success of natural selection, the singular individual, the omniscient narrator cannot possibly tell a story that will live on. In order to “survive and multiply,” to be read and republished, a story must attain approval by the population at large. As the moment for the Creator’s master plot had passed, the people’s plural plot emerged, identified by sameness and pack-mentality. Sold to a population fragmented by varying sources of identity, The Woman in White suggests a trend towards a selection of story in accordance with Darwin’s laws natural selection. The decentralizing of the individual and the questioning of creative omniscience that Darwin proposes in On the Origin of Species ultimately leads the literature of Collins and his successors towards the modernist sensibility of multiplicity.

Collins, Wilkie. The Woman in White. 1861. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.

Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. 1859. Mineola, New
York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2006. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix. “1914: One or Several Wolves?” A Thousand Plateaus.
Trans. Brian Massumi. New York: Continuum, 2004. 30-43. Google Books. Web. 15 June