Madame Bovary’s Ovaries

To paraphrase Alexander Pope, “’tis with our literary criticism as our watches; none go just alike yet each believes his own.”

Madame Bovary’s Ovaries, by David Barash and Nanelle Barash, is a fresh idea in the world of literary criticism. It applies the controversial field of “social Darwinism” to the understanding of literature. This book offers “a new set of spectacles for the reader who is discerning, perplexed. or just plain curious and ready for something new.”

This book is really more a layman’s discussion of the biological theory, with occasional, almost glancing references to works of literature that happen to match the conclusions of the theory. That, however, doesn’t make the connections any less valid. I think the authors have struck a rich, new vein in literary theory, and given that a great deal of classic fiction really does make a nice fit suggests that many authors have explored its implications in Western culture, albeit unwittingly.

“People can, and do, go about their lives in pursuit of the biological purpose,” say the authors, “even if they don’t know what that purpose is, or if — like those stoats, field mice, or the first gene molecules of the early soup — they don’t realize they are doing so.” Their thesis is that much of literature can be understood from the perspective of the biological drives inherent to the characters. Thus the clan loyalty seen in The Godfather nicely illustrates kin selection; the unconscious desire to produce stronger offspring from healthier mates drives Madame Bovary; Cinderella is a tale about the struggles of children who don’t share a genetic bond with their caregivers. Othello gets analyzed extensively, as does Emma and Portnoy’s Complaint, and all sorts of other references get tossed in.

The authors compare the pervasiveness of this biological drive to the environment of a fish. If you could ask a fish what its life was like, it would not tell you life is really wet. That’s so thoroughly true that it is not even recognized. So it is, according to this variety of criticism, with the biological drives of characters in fiction, if they’re realistic characters anyway.

A great deal of the book, easily more than half of the words, is devoted to explaining the various applications of social Darwinism. The literary tie-ins they make almost seem asides rather than the point of the book. It feels as though they are trying too hard to persuade the reader of how legitimate their theory is.

The authors have been accused of being selective in the literary representations of their theory, but any kind of interpretation is a meaning imposed on a work from the outside. Even if Jane Austen had consciously written Emma with the intent to display the intricacies of sexual selection and how females hold the power in that exchange, it wouldn’t have mattered. What matters, what always matters, is what meaning the reader takes from the reading.

Any given literary theory is merely one more way to look at a piece of fiction. It is never the right way or even the best way. The authors of this book make that same admission about their interpretation of literature. Theirs is no better nor more valid than, say, feminist criticism, pragmatism, modernism, regionalism, or any number of other theories, and at one point they even acknowledge that the “One for all, all for one” philosophy in The Three Musketeers can be better seen as an especially pure form of Marxism than from a biological perspective.

The book is a short read, and for those interested in gaining a deeper understanding of the fiction they read, it’s worth the time. It adds another tool to the toolbox for appreciating well-done fiction. (Best of all, the authors apply what I consider the “correct” use of the serial comma.)

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