19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, No 10 (2010)

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What the Alligator didn't Know: Natural Selection and Love in Our Mutual Friend

Nicola Bown


This essay reads Our Mutual Friend as Dickens's rejoinder to Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, and sees it as a novel that is profoundly shaped by the imaginative impact of Darwin's work. However, the direct influence of On the Origin of Species is not the essay's major concern. Instead, the essay sees this novel as a response to some of the questions posed by Darwin's work about how a natural world driven by chance and contigency, death, waste and hunger might be redeemed.

I focus on the figure of Mr Venus, the taxidermist who, I argue, is an affectionate portrait of Dickens's friend Richard Owen. By tracing Owen's involvement in debates over evolution and the origins of life, I show that these contemporary debates had a considerable backwash in a novel saturated with the metaphors of evolution, and centrally concerned with the nature of, and the relationship betweeen, life and death. I suggest that Mr Venus's shop is a comic version of the Hunterian Museum, over which Owen presided, and that its portrayal encapuslates the novel's concerns with evolution, life and death. I argue that Dickens's response to the challenge of Darwinism is to see love as the world's redemption, and that he uses transmuted versions of Mr Venus's shop as a vivid metaphor for the idea that love is the redeeming spark of life.

I suggest, though, that in the post-Darwinian imaginative landscape, love could not redeem all, and that Dickens's redeeming vision of love is finally inadequate to save all his characters. 'What the alligator knew, ages deep in the slime' was that love was powerless against nature - and what it didn't know, and Dickens tried to show in this, his last completed novel, is that in spite of the ruthless rapacity of both nature and human society, love makes the world go round. 


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