Purdue University Graduate School
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Descent's Delicate Branches: Darwinian Visions of Race and Gender in American Women's Literature, 1859-1928

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posted on 2019-05-15, 16:33 authored by April M UrbanApril M Urban

This dissertation examines Charles Darwin’s major texts together with literary works by turn-of the-century American women writers—Nella Larsen, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Kate Chopin—in order to trace how evolutionary theory shaped transatlantic cultural ideas of race, particularly black identity, and gender. I focus on the concept of “descent” as the overarching theme organizing categories of the human in evolutionary terms. My perspective and methods—examining race and gender from a black feminist perspective that draws on biopolitics theory, as well as using close reading, affect theory, and attention to narrative in my textual analysis—comprise my argument’s framework. By bringing these perspectives and methods together in my attention to the interplay between Darwinian discourse and American literature, I shed new light on the turn-of-the-century transatlantic exchange between science and culture. Throughout this dissertation, I argue that descent constitutes a central concept and point of tension in evolutionary theory’s inscription of life’s development. I also show how themes of human-animal kinship, the Western binary of rationality and materiality, and reproduction and maternity circulated within this discourse. I contribute to scholarly work relating evolutionist discourse to literature by focusing on American literature: in the context of turn-of-the-century American anxieties about racial and gender hierarchies, the evolutionist paradigm’s configurations of human difference were especially consequential. Moreover, Larsen, Gilman, and Chopin offer responses that reveal this hierarchy’s varied effects on racialized and gendered bodies. I thus demonstrate the significance of examining Darwinian discourse alongside American literature by women writers, an association in need of deeper scholarly attention, especially from a feminist, theoretical perspective.

This dissertation begins with my application of literary analysis and close reading to Darwin’s major texts in order to uncover how they formed a suggestive foundation for late nineteenth- to early twentieth-century ideologies of race and gender. I use this analysis as the background for my investigation of Larsen’s, Gilman’s, and Chopin’s literary texts. In Chapter 1, I conduct a close reading of Darwin’s articulation of natural selection in The Origin of Speciesand focus on how Darwin’s syntactical and narrative structure imply evolution as an agential force aimed at linear progress. In Chapter 2, I analyze Darwin’s articulation of the development of race and gender differences in The Descent of Man, as well as Thomas Henry Huxley’s Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature, and argue that Darwin’s and Huxley’s accounts suggest how anxiety over animal-human kinship was alleviated through structuring nonwhite races and women as less developed and hence inferior. In Chapter 3, I argue that Larsen’s novel Quicksand interrogates and complicates aesthetic primitivism and biopolitical racism and sexism, both rooted in evolutionist discourses. Finally, in Chapter 4, I focus on Gilman’s utopian novel Herlandand select short stories by Chopin. While Gilman unambiguously advocates for a desexualized white matriarchy, Chopin’s stories waver between support for, and critique of, racial hierarchy. Reading these authors together against the backdrop of white masculine evolutionist theory reveals how this theory roots women as materially bound reproducers of racial hierarchy.


Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • English

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Aparajita Sagar

Additional Committee Member 2

Jennifer Bay

Additional Committee Member 3

Elena Coda

Additional Committee Member 4

Arkady Plotnitsky