Alphonse Daudet and Darwinism

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Author: Boyd G. Carter
Editor: Lawrence J. Trudeau
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 2,913 words

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[(essay date 1945) In the following essay, Carter traces the influence of Charles Darwin on the work of Daudet. He claims that Daudet was suspicious of Darwinism because he thought it encouraged animalistic behavior.]

The influence of Taine and Renan on their contemporaries and the reaction of writers like Bourget and Brunetière against this influence are facts of literary history too well known to merit elaboration. The influence of Darwin is less well known. Gustave Lanson appraises thus the contributions of these three men to modern thought:

Taine … Renan … Darwin … voilà les trois grands modificateurs des esprits contemporains; c’est d’eux … que nous tenons la plupart de nos idées générales. Darwin surtout—à mesure qu’il était moins directement étudié—est devenu presque populaire.1The Anatole France-Brunetière controversy over Bourget’s Le Disciple provides a dramatic example in confirmation of Lanson’s observation and exemplifies the sensitivity of certain French writers of the late nineteenth century to the philosophical and social implications of Darwinism.2

Among eminent Frenchmen of the time notably disturbed by Darwin’s theory of evolution was Alphonse Daudet, who was a pioneer in introducing the theme of Darwinism into literature. In his L’Immortel, published in 1888, a year before the publication of Le Disciple (1889), Daudet presents a character, Paul Astier, who cynically invokes Darwinism as adequate sanction and justification for his unscrupulous and predatory conduct. In his preface to Le Disciple, Bourget observes (referring to the young man who follows the philosophy of Darwin) that “Alphonse Daudet, qui a su merveilleusement le voir et le définir, ce jeune homme moderne, l’a baptisé struggle-for-lifer. …”3

The legend of the mild, all-tolerant, all-forgiving Alphonse Daudet demands some modifications when it is remembered that he is the author of L’Immortel, Soutien de famille, L’Evangéliste, Rose et Ninette, La Petite Paroisse, and the plays, La Lutte pour la vie, L’Obstacle, and La Menteuse.4 These works, written between 1883 and his death in 1897, reveal an intensely nationalistic and an anti-democratic Daudet, a staunch defender of the family and conservative doctrines, who is extremely skeptical and belligerent in his attitudes towards science. Thus it is not unnatural that he should be apprehensive concerning the potential consequences of the social misunderstanding and misapplication of Darwin’s theory.

Curiously enough the alleged menace of Darwinism to social ethics was impressed upon both Daudet and Bourget by a crime célèbre committed in Paris, April 6, 1878—the Affaire Lebiez-Barré.5

Lebiez and Barré were well-educated young men of good families who had been schoolmates in Angers. They came to Paris, Lebiez ostensibly to study medicine and Barré to study law, but their real ambition was to make a fortune in any way they could. Barré contracted some debts and, at the time Lebiez joined him, had an agency which served as a front for various crooked enterprises.

One day an old lady, the widow Gillet, who sold milk for a living, revealed to Barré that she possessed fourteen thousand francs in stocks. Barré asked...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420120234