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The Negative Side to a Darwinian Analysis

by Amanda Lattin

There are many approaches to literary criticism. However, few take into account the psychological factors driving the plot and theme. Joseph Carroll explains these in his analytical model of Darwinian literary criticism, as presented in “Human Nature and Literary Meaning.” The article contains valid and applicable points, which will be illustrated using Saga of the Volsungs, translated by Jesse Byock, and “Sorrow Acre,” by Isak Dinesen. In addition to the ways in which it illuminates aspects of literature, the method also contains a few flaws.

Carroll identifies five basic concepts in his Darwinian-based analysis of literature. These are: humans are driven by a hierarchy of motives; there are three distinct points of view involved in every narration; authors construct their stories and meanings in relation to a frame of human universals; individuals have their own identities; and theme, tone, and formal organization are the main components of literary significance (Carroll 77).

Carroll exerts most of his energies into developing the first premise. He posits that the hierarchy of motives consists of both “the concept of human life history as a cycle” and the notion of behavioral systems as developed by McGuire and Troisi (Carroll 82). There are seven behavioral systems: survival, technology, parenting, mating, kin, social, and cognition (Carroll 89). This is a valid approach, as it provides insight into characters’ behavior. A prime example is “Sorrow Acre.” In this story the parenting motivation is quite prominent. The action centers around a mother literally working herself to death in order to save her son from prison. This may make little sense to the reader, until he/she approaches it from a survival perspective: he is her only child, a male, and she depends on him for her own security and the continuation of the family line. Similarly, one may not understand why the uncle was driven to see the completion of the bargain rather than have mercy on Anne-Marie. This is where the social relations realm comes into play. As lord of a feudal system, his word was his respect. If he broke his word, he would lose some of his power. Similarly, he realized that as a peasant, Anne-Marie’s pride was at stake: “Anne-Marie might well find that I am making light of her exploit, if now, at the eleventh hour, I did nullify it by a second word” (Carroll 148). Carroll is correct in employing this method; identifying the underlying psychological motives of characters is important in understanding the story and meaning.

However, there are possible flaws in the organizational structure of the behavioral systems. Defined as “coordinated suites of behavior subserving specific life goals,” according to McGuire and Troisi the seven systems can be categorized into four specific systems: survival, reproduction, kin assistance, and reciprocation (Carroll 83). However, the behavior system “cognition” would fit into none of these categories. For example, “paint pictures,” a cognitive behavior in Carroll’s behavioral systems chart, does not directly serve to ensure survival or reproduction, has no bearing on kin relationships, and is not a trait associated with reciprocation.

If one were to disregard the four overarching systems, the seven behavioral systems still do not comprise their own entities. As an example, “technology” could be a subset of survival and/or cognition. It is not self-evident that the development of technology is as much of a driving force as, for example, mating or social relations. The behaviors “use fire” and “shape pounders” both directly facilitate human survival, whereas other technological actions have less directly practical functions and could be considered dispensable fruits of cognition. Similarly, “parenting” could fit under kin relations, as we often protect, teach, and nurture members of our family besides our offspring.

An additional feature of the chart is the incorporation of Ekman’s seven basic emotions. Each emotion appears to relate to one behavior system because of their positioning within the chart. Yet the only reason this was done was to “[signify] that all behavioral systems are activated and mediated by emotion” (Carroll 90). This serves to impair the reader’s comprehension of the chart rather than augment it. Carroll offers no explanation as to what qualifies as a “basic” emotion, and it seems questionable that there happen to be the same number of emotions and behavior systems. “Contempt” and “disgust” seem relatively similar, whereas emotions like jealousy were excluded entirely. Additionally, there is no support offered for the claim that emotion precipitates behavior systems. Behaviors could be triggered by emotion, but it also may be possible that engaging in these behavior systems is what activates emotion.

This is not to say that emotion isn’t important. It is a vital component of literature, and is what makes the behavioral systems complete. It is easy to connect with the characters in “Sorrow Acre” because the characters have been thoroughly humanized. Using literary tools like setting and diction to indicate the feeling and tone of the story, Dinesen has linked us with our innate behavioral system instincts through emotion. It is harder to connect with the characters from Saga of the Volsungs because an account of actions is given, but the reader’s perception of the emotions accompanying those actions is not fully developed. Neither tone, setting, nor the characters’ narrated emotions fully convey the reality of what they are supposed to be feeling. If emotion was not an important part of Carroll’s behavioral system model, we could connect easily with Saga of the Volsungs solely on the main behavioral systems presented, such as mating, social relations, survival, and social relations.

The biggest problem with the critical model presented by Carroll is that it does not deal directly with literature. In his demonstrative critique of Pride and Prejudice, included in his article to show how the analytical model may be used, Carroll interprets plot events in relationship to human motivation. However, he does a poor job of tying other literary constructs like metaphor, stylistics, and tone into his analysis. “Literary representation is first and foremost the representation of human behavior within some surrounding world” (Carroll 90). This is true, but there are also the textual, conceptual, and metaphorical components of literature which the model seems to overlook. Literary criticism must evaluate not just what the author is saying, but how she or he uses the text to say it.

A strong point of the model is its approach to the exchange of narrative between individuals. Carroll stresses that the author, the characters, and the audience are three separate loci of awareness (91). As such, the interaction of the reader’s and author’s narratives is tempered by each of their unique personalities and cultural factors, as well as those given to the characters by the author (Carroll 76). “The ‘meaning’ of a representation does not reside in the represented events. Meaning resides in the interpretation of events. And interpretation is always, necessarily, dependent on ‘point of view’ ” (Carroll 90). In “Sorrow Acre,” the characters communicate the author’s position while holding true to the individual personalities and dispositions she has given them. Dinesen expects an audience and tries to influence its perspectives on social issues and justice through her narrative. Characters are not real people, but are rather conceived into being for use in specific ways and for specific purposes, and reflect the ideas and motives of the author (Carroll 76). This is an important point to remember. For while they must hold overall to the behavior systems, they can be manipulated when necessary dy the author.

Although Carroll does not employ an overly literary approach throughout his model, literature does have a place in the lessons he imparts. “Because they have an irrepressibly active and unstable mental life, humans have a special need to fabricate mental maps or models to make sense of the world and provide behavioral directives that can take the place of instinctive behavioral patterns” (Carroll 87). In other words, we have instincts but need to evaluate and identify the “why” of what we do, even if these explanations are “fabricated.” We are not happy to attribute our behavior to innate and seemingly uncontrollable factors. Instead, we must analyze and believe in our own motives. This fits into Carroll’s overall argument as an example of the cognitive behavioral system. In relationship to literature, The arts make sense of human needs and motives. They simulate subjective experience, map out social relations, evoke sexual and social interactions, depict the intimate relations of kin, and locate the whole complex and interactive array of human behavioral systems within models of the total world order. Humans have a universal and irrepressible need to fabricate this sort of order, and satisfying that need provides a distinct form of pleasure and fulfillment” (Carroll 87).

What Carroll has identified here is narration. Narration, which serves the purpose of helping to organize and understand our own behavior systems, is a model of our world. It could be said that the need to narrate is an adaptive function, promoting survival by allowing us to cognitively assist our instincts and learn from the recounting of others’ experiences, successful or otherwise. In “Sorrow Acre,” the author’s cognitions come into play not only in the theme of the work and its creation, but in the connections embedded in the story, as well. When Adam debates his uncle about gods of different mythologies, his uncle says this of the Danish deities: “[they had] those darker powers…who worked the suffering, the disasters, the ruin of our world. They might safely give themselves up to temperance and kindness. The omnipotent gods…have no such facilitation. With their omnipotence they take over the woe of the universe” (Dinesen 134). The uncle, in order to explain his behavior to his nephew, justifies his position by implicitly likening his status as lord of the feudal system to that of a Greek or Roman (omnipotent) god. In relation to Carroll’s perspective on human mental life, this section from “Sorrow Acre” illustrates the desire of man to understand and qualify actions, events, and his own desires through cognition and literature.

The Darwinian approach to literary criticism offers valuable tools for understanding literature, providing insight into point of view and character motivations. However, the organizational structure of the behavior system concept is less than ideal. They are not mutually exclusive, nor do the four overarching categories account for all seven of the systems. Carroll’s method is effective for plot and action explanations, but not so much for criticism of literature and its mechanisms.