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
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
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
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.