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Evolutionary Biological Issues in Edith Wharton's The Children

From: College Literature
32.2, Spring 2005
pp. 83-102 | 10.1353/lit.2005.0034


Plot, theme, and setting in Wharton's 1928 novel clearly provoke biosocial investigation: her portrait of the Jazz Age highlights intergenerational conflict and disturbed familial interactions. Characters in the parental generation neglect their progeny to such an extent that they imperil the survival of their own lineage. Characters in the younger generation react by formulating utopian plans for sustaining an alternative family group, thereby creating loyalties that supersede actual kinship ties. From a Darwinian perspective, both generations are engaged in biologically maladaptive behavior, and Wharton targets a rapidly changing social landscape as its principal cause. Illustrating the workings of evolutionary biology, her narrative focuses on the breakdown of adaptive mechanisms in an aberrant environment. At the same time, nonetheless, she suggests the moral worth of idealistic projects and altruistic choices which may be inspired by the failure of culturally and biologically driven patterns of human behavior.