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Evolutionary biological issues in Edith Wharton's The Children.

The Children (1928) is in important respects Edith Wharton's most modern work of fiction. This novel delineates a ruptured social fabric, kaleidoscopic shiftings in human loyalties, and bizarrely fragmented familial ties. A story-line focused on the conduct of parents and offspring, highlighting disturbed intergenerational behavior, portrays the dark side of modernity and at the same time decisively invites biosocial scrutiny. Readers observe adults who cavalierly neglect their offspring, thus jeopardizing their own fitness (ultimate reproductive success). (1) In response to parental indifference, children themselves embark upon an unusual quest, one that promotes allegiance to non-relatives over actual kin. (2) The plot is driven, and readers' sympathies are engaged, precisely by this deviation on the part of the younger generation from ordinary genetic self-interest. As the action unfolds, Wharton examines both causes and outcomes of behavior that from a Darwinian point of view must be considered maladaptive. She demonstrates that such behavior may perhaps represent an altruistic response to highly unusual circumstances. Her novel provokes interest not only because it explores the workings of biological imperatives but, more intriguingly, because it poses a poignant challenge to them. (3)

I. A Quixotic Quest in an Aberrant Environment

Wharton identifies a rapidly changing and in many ways aberrant social environment as the source of much of the biologically senseless behavior she depicts. (4) The action takes place in the period of social upheaval between World War I and the Stock Market crash known as the Jazz Age. We observe a wealthy, upper-class social group, a mixture of Americans and Europeans, coping with dramatic changes in social mores and customs. In the throes of a new permissiveness, the people in this privileged world wander through Europe from one party or cruise to the next, living in hotels, seemingly without any meaningful occupation or stable residence. One character describes this environment as a "wilderness": "packing up our tents every few weeks for another move" (Wharton 1928, 23). The nomadic domestic arrangements reflect "transient partnerships," undertaken with the avowed intent of long-term commitment but lacking follow-through: "the marriages just like tents--folded up and thrown away when you've done with them" (11, 23). The book clearly criticizes these "lax notions of marriage and the responsibility imposed by a family" (Nevius 1953, 213), and at the same time it presents a larger indictment of the environment fostering them. Irresponsibility reigns in this social community overpowered by "wasteful luxury ... vanity ... selfishness ... and greed" (81, 114). Those who suffer most from the "cross-tangle of divorces" and peripatetic way of life are the offspring of numerous and often ill-considered liaisons: hence the novel's title (98).

The children at the center of Wharton's tale are a group of seven, thrown together as the result of a complicated series of alliances. The union of the central couple, Joyce and Cliffe Wheater, initially results in a daughter and a set of twins. A divorce ensues, and both partners remarry. In these new unions, Cliffe sires a daughter, and Joyce acquires two stepchildren whose bankrupt and profligate father, an Italian nobleman, afterward proves unwilling to undertake personal care of them. Both of the former Wheater partners eventually become disillusioned with their second marriages and find means to end them. At this juncture, urged by their eldest daughter to reconcile, Joyce and Cliffe remarry and produce a fourth child--actually the seventh child of the group, which now includes four full Wheater siblings, one Wheater half-sibling, and two full Buondelmonte siblings unrelated to the other five. When the novel opens, Judith Wheater, the eldest daughter, is fifteen years old and has been assuming chief responsibility for all six of the others, who range in age from eleven to two. With the assistance of two salaried employees, she provides all hands-on care, organizes the perpetual travels from one pension or hotel to the next, worries and schemes about their common future. Only occasionally are the children in geographic proximity to the adult Wheaters, who are the formal, if not legal, guardians of all seven, and even then the six eldest children invariably are lodged in separate quarters to prevent the parents from being overpowered by their presence.

The children's wanderings are dictated by a jumble of considerations, principally the parents' social schedules, squabbles, and whims. Financial self-interest also plays a role in the hands-off policy exhibited by some of the parents and other adult relatives, particularly the desire to retain alimony or an "allowance" (Wharton 1928, 65, 266). At unpredictable intervals a parent or stepparent or stepparent-to-be appears, seeking to assert rights to one child or another and sometimes offering bribes to seduce a child's affections. The adults' motives invariably appear selfish, unconnected with any child's actual well-being. For instance, the mother of Zinnie (the Wheater half-sister) needs to produce the child in order to demonstrate her fertility to her new husband, a wealthy English aristocrat with lands and a title to pass on. In another incident, the newest wife of the Italian nobleman arrives to lay claim to his two children, the Buondelmonte stepsiblings. Proudly parading her degree in Eugenics and Infant Psychology, she is demanding custody of her husband's children in order to maintain her image as an expert in childrearing. It is the adult Wheaters themselves, however, who pose the most significant threat to the stability of the children's situation. Their reconciliation and remarriage, crowned though it is with the birth of a healthy boy in whom they obviously, if distantly, rejoice, does not prove stable in this environment of constant "jazzing" (38). The evidently imminent break-up of their marriage, and both partners' obvious interest in selecting new mates, promises to entail a redistribution of custodial arrangements for the seven children.

Social environment plays a viciously culpable role in Wharton's novel in that it has produced a generation of adults whose parental investment in their offspring is unnaturally low. Some of the parents connected to the Wheater menage provide financial resources, but virtually none give personal care or responsible supervision of such care. The children's educational needs, including social education, are abysmally neglected, particularly in view of the parents' wealth and social class. Such neglect appears to be injuring their chances to marry well (two daughters, for example, show signs of making hypogamous mate choices by getting involved with hotel staff). Even the most basic of the children's needs--physical survival--is not adequately met. Efforts to get the frail eleven-year-old son to appropriate climates are made almost entirely by his elder sister and tend to be thwarted by parental whim or indifference. Most tellingly, the youngest boy, a "large reliable baby," dies of meningitis at the age of three in the course of yet another family peregrination (Wharton 1928, 19). The parents' failure to raise this promisingly healthy child to adulthood strongly underscores the inadequacy of their investment in their offspring. The death by suicide of Judith's friend Doll Westway, another child raised under conditions similar to those endured by the Wheaters, demonstrates the widespread prevalence of insufficient parental care in this danger ous new "wilderness," the "world of Palace Hotels" (23, 46). (5)

Even as they enter middle age, these adults devote their energies preponderantly to the search for new mating opportunities rather than to the nurture of existing children. Such activity is not biologically advantageous, particularly for the females, since their fertile years are coming to an end. Refusing to "settle down" in age-appropriate fashion, they seek instead the illusion of perpetual youth (with the help of "all these new ways the doctors have of making them young again") and adopt behavior patterns better suited to much younger individuals (Wharton 1928, 44). Realistically, given the ages of the women involved, most of these proposed matings are unlikely to result in the birth of more children. The evolutionary self-interest of Joyce, Cliffe, and their would-be new partners would be better served by investment of resources and energies in existing offspring than in courtships whose outcomes are very likely to prove sterile. Caught up in a maladaptively youthful lifestyle, the adults in this radically changed environment neglect their children to the point of endangering their own fitness.

Reduced parental investment leads in turn to the formulation of goals on the part of the offspring which ordinarily might seem counter-productive from the standpoint of evolutionary biology. Precociously aware of their parents' essential frivolity and inattention to all serious business of life, the children are understandably disillusioned with adults and adulthood. They do not aspire to join the world of senseless merry-making which has left so many of their own needs unmet. Lacking a home base and any consistent personal parental care, the children have grown into a cohesive and self-sustaining group. The strange and constantly shifting custody arrangements all but the youngest have endured during the parents' various pairings, partings, and re-pairings have left them determined never again to be divided, "bundled up ... and sent from pillar to post, first to one Palace Hotel and then another, wherever one parent or another happened to be" (Wharton 1928, 25). As a group, they feel a sense of continuity, belonging, and security that nothing else in their lives has provided. Hence their solemn oath, sworn "on Scopy's book," never to be separated (134). Under leadership of the eldest, who functions partly as pseudo-parent, partly as a child who is simply first among peers, they create a kind of Lost Boys camaraderie, placing prime importance on the continuance of the group as a unit. Including half- and stepsiblings in their vision of permanent, familial togetherness, all seven are offering to persons with whom they share no ties of actual kinship the kind of commitment usually reserved for close relatives. Principles of inclusive fitness explain the loyalty extended among them to full and half-siblings, while the allegiance of each child to non-relatives in the group is promoted, presumably, by their having been raised together (see Daly and Wilson 1983, 306-07). Wharton portrays the children's insistent refusal to discriminate between close kin and the biological strangers in their midst as bold, touching, and unexpected; the strength of their collective devotion evokes a heightened emotional response from readers (as from Martin Boyne) precisely because it violates predictions of kin selection theory.

The little Wheaters's determined dedication to the cohesiveness and continuity of their group is particularly astonishing, from a biosocial viewpoint, because it influences them to cling to one another rather than to expect or accept support from adult relatives. Siblings normally compete for parental attention and resources (Wright 1994, 165-66), but conflict within the Wheater group is confined to jealousy and squabbling over relatively trivial "presents," occasional treats and largesse distributed in the course of infrequent parental visits. When confronted with the inestimably more significant resources presumably associated with actual parental custody, however, the children defy Darwinian predictions by their resistance. The young Buondelmontes cannot be won over with descriptions of the "ancestral palace" they are invited to share, complete with "a modern playroom" and state-of-the-art gymnastics training (Wharton 1928, 289). And when Zinnie Wheater, five-year-old daughter from Cliffe Wheater's second marriage, is offered the opportunity to go live with her "'own real mother,'" she replies: "'I should like to consult my lawyer first'" (292, 293). In giving absolute priority to their own "close, self-governing body" even when this priority means rejecting proffered parental resources, the children react in a way that normally might be expected to reduce their individual fitness, but the kind of parental attention they have experienced in the past has proven more harmful than beneficial (29): they have ascertained that it does not represent genuine investment in their welfare. Experience has taught them that parents are not to be relied on: "If children don't look after each other, who's going to do it for them? You can't expect parents to, when they don't know how to look after themselves" (130). Readers may suspect Wharton of irony in her choice of a title, since the parents she depicts are behaving more like juveniles than the actual children (McDowell 1976, 120). The little Wheaters have formulated unusual goals in an evolutionarily unusual context. An observer "marvel[s] that the bond [uniting them] ... should be stronger than the sum of [their disparate] heredities. But so it was" (Wharton 1928, 47).

The member of the group who has sacrificed the most for their common welfare is, of course, the eldest, Judith Wheater. The quasi-maternal role she has assumed not only debars her from many of the normal recreations of adolescence but, she asserts, precludes schooling and marriage. "There'll always be some of the children left to look after.... I never mean to leave the children--never!" she avers (Wharton 1928, 60). During the bulk of the action of the novel, therefore, she is shown to be jeopardizing her future individual reproductive success for the sake of siblings and step-siblings. Inclusive fitness theory suggests that this alloparental behavior on her part nonetheless may be adaptive. If Judith succeeds in raising three full siblings and one half-sibling to adulthood, the resulting nieces and nephews may compensate, perhaps more than compensate, for lost fitness as measured by children she might herself have raised. The mathematics of her situation are simple. She shares half her genes with a full sibling (exactly the same percentage she would share with a child), and one-quarter of her genes with a half-sibling. Thus she will share one-quarter of her genes with a niece or nephew, one-eight with the child of a half-sibling. If each of the siblings whose survival she fosters were to raise exactly two children (a relatively modest expectation), Judith would succeed in getting one and three-quarters copies of her genes into the next generation. She would have to raise four children of her own to improve even slightly on this result. Of course, any children her Buondelmonte stepsiblings raise will have no positive impact on her fitness, but once she has made an alloparental investment in the group of children as a whole, the presence of a couple of non-relatives is of little consequence. Material resources to feed, clothe, and house the children are abundant. Judith is not making a significant additional sacrifice by tending six children rather than four.

It is the allocation of her time and energy that constitutes her principal sacrifice: she is providing child-care instead of seeking an education commensurate with her socioeconomic position or engaging in normal adolescent pre-courtship activities. Postponing her search for a mate, and refusing to prepare herself properly for that search, she is proposing to channel most, perhaps all, of her fertile years into the raising of siblings rather than offspring, as well as decreasing her eventual chances of attracting a high quality, high-investing mate. Her decision to invest so heavily in siblings shows that she is operating according to what loosely may be termed a bird-in-hand principle: her siblings are already in existence, and she is too young (at the time when she initially assumes her caretaker role) to produce offspring of her own. Thus she is safeguarding copies of her genes that might not be replaceable. At the end of novel, Judith appears to have changed her strategy, partly because she lacks the power to ensure its success and partly because her alloparental function has, for a variety of reasons, come to an end. Most of the other children are no longer physically present to require her assistance, and in consequence she has relinquished, or at least decreased, her all-absorbing foster-mother commitment in order to engage in pre-courtship behavior. She will, of course, still pay the price for her earlier alloparental investment, since she lacks the cultural, intellectual, and social education to attract the kind of mate she might otherwise have obtained.

Wharton generates reader sympathy for the children's goals by introducing their story from the pointofview of an outsider. The novel's protagonist, Martin Boyne, accidentally encounters the young Wheater menage and gradually gains insight into the family complexities that produced the group of seven. Having been acquainted with both the adult Wheaters in his youth (like them, he is a man in early middle age), he might be expected to sympathize with the parental generation. Instead he quickly comes to identify with the children and with their passionate desire to remain together. Having spent most of his adult life on engineering jobs in South America, Boyne is distinctly not a part of the modern Jazz culture in which the Wheaters move. He himself is unmarried and childless, and his appalled reaction to the Wheaters's cavalier treatment of their offspring provides the measure by which readers judge it. Repeatedly he contrasts the Wheater children's lifestyle with the secure and stable conditions of his own childhood, confirming the negative impact of the environmental changes Wharton has targeted for criticism. The children enlist him to intercede on their behalf, and he is able, initially, to persuade the Wheaters to engage a tutor for the elder boy. Later Boyne even agrees to serve as temporary guardian to forestall a breaking-up of the group. Allying himself with their cause and attempting to negotiate for them, he is amazed at the difficulty of getting the Wheaters and assorted other parents to focus even briefly on the subject of the children. The adults are too busy with their partying, in-fighting, and mate-swapping to concentrate on their offspring's present or future welfare; discussions of the topic are repeatedly postponed for the most trivial of reasons: "When all was said and done, all they asked was not to be bothered" (175). Symptomatic of the peculiar parental priorities is Joyce Wheater's annexing of Terry's new tutor as a potential mate for herself. The tutoring is suspended before it has well begun, as Joyce begins to talk of divorcing her husband (again!) in order to marry her newest partner in the on-going game of matrimonial musical chairs.

An extended allusion to Greek myth serves to support Wharton's condemnation of the adult behavior blighting these children's lives. Boyne's initial efforts to comprehend the intricately shifting relationships behind the group he encounters on board ship are characterized, metaphorically, as a journey through a maze: "the Wheater labyrinth" (Wharton 1928, 15). Trying to sort out the marriages, divorces, and remarriages, along with the varying parentage of the children before him, he is "consumed by the desire to see farther into this nursery tangle, and follow its various threads back to the young creature [Judith] at his side" (14). Which children are the result of which pairings? Who is related to whom? In what order did the different marriages occur? The complex inter-relationships prove "enigmatic," presenting a series of "puzzles" for his solution (19, 22). Scattered bits of information that come his way only increase his confusion, "land[ing] him in the heart of the labyrinth; the difficulty now was to find his way out again" (16). Trying to elucidate the tortured matrimonial history of the parental generation, Miss Scope tells Boyne, "'I see that I haven't yet given you all the threads; there are so many'" (25-26). Gradually Boyne begins to make his way through the "matrimonial tangles" that produced this genetically mixed but socially cohesive group of children (11).

Wharton's deliberate invoking of the image of a labyrinth may suggest even more than the mad complexity of the mating customs which it so aptly renders vivid. The labyrinth in Crete was built by Daedalus to contain a monster, the Minotaur, to whom each year a human sacrifice of Athenian youth was made. It seems more than coincidental that the Wheater group consists of precisely seven members, echoing in abbreviated fashion the formula of "seven youths and seven maidens" familiar from retellings of the myth (Gayley 1893, 255). In the environment of the novel, children are indeed sacrificial victims, condemned to wander about, lost, in the labyrinthine windings of their parents' marital experiments. From this modern "cross-tangle," furthermore, there is no escape (Wharton 1928, 98). Theseus-like in his wish to help the youngsters evade their fate, Boyne enters wholeheartedly into the "muddled business," but is helpless to effect the children's release (23). Their sacrifice is not merely metaphorical, as the deaths of Chip Wheater and Doll Westway so glaringly illustrate. It is worthy of note that the monster itself, the Minotaur of Greek myth, was the product of unnatural desire: the coupling of a woman with a bull. Thus the labyrinth allusion also helps to highlight a fundamental aberrancy in the mating choices characterizing this privileged, post-war world. The adults' maladaptive sexual activity has rendered members of the next generation captive, preparing the way for their monstrous destruction.

There is a Peter Pan-ish quality to the children's doomed quest to preserve their little group intact and untainted by flaws exhibited by nearly all the adults they know. They are seeking to stabilize an inherently unstable situation, unstable not only because of their powerlessness as children to assert themselves effectively in the adult world, but because of the changes they themselves are undergoing: childhood is not a steady state. They are unable to foresee the transformations each of them necessarily must undergo and thus to realize how their group is threatened from within as well as from without. "'It's all hideous and touching and crazy,'" Boyne's fiancee declares, observing the neglected children's struggles (Wharton 1928, 118). Boyne notes that what "excited his interest and sympathy" in the little Wheaters is "not least the frailness of the tie uniting them, and their determination that it should not be broken" (45). The precarious quality of the children's bond, their touching resolution to create a social unit based on something other than biological connection, lies at the heart of Wharton's novel. They themselves are aware, on some level, of the unusual nature of their group commitment, as the ritual they devise for affirmation of their loyalty indicates: ordinary, biologically based nepotism does not require "an awful oath" to become operational (60). The poignancy of their dream is thematically and emotionally central; the novel exists principally to validate its worth even while demonstrating that it cannot prevail. As Nancy Bentley observes, "it is precisely the absence of any clear legal or even blood relation" that elevates their group commitment to a kind of "heroism" (2003, 173). Boyne plays a crucial role in this validation of something that can sustain itself, as he says, for "a moment only," as "an episode" (Wharton 1928, 332); it is "a Utopia," "a dream-paradise of a day," a kind of "fairyland" (300, 135, 305).

Boyne is the only adult, except for the children's salaried nanny, who takes active steps to abet their schemes and who actually imagines that a happy outcome may prove achievable. Others take for granted that the children's situation at any given moment is provisional. Rose Sellars, for example, refers casually to the moment "'when the break-up comes, as of course it will'" (Wharton 1928, 178). The general belief that the children's dream must fail is rooted in the conviction that kin selection, aided by social custom and force of law, must and will triumph. Each parent is likely at some point to assert legal, biologically based, rights to his or her child, and these rights will be upheld. Other family members who may step in to offer custodial care for one or more of the group are likely to assist only those with whom they share ties of kinship. In fact, such predictions prove accurate. When parents demand custody of their child or children, they disregard entirely the children's wish not to be separated. Grandmother Mervin (Joyce Wheater's mother), applied to by the children for succor, offers a home only to four of the seven, those who are her own descendents, "'my own dear grandchildren ... cannot assume responsibility step-children'" (300). Boyne is disappointed but "in his heart not much surprised" by this example of resource allocation based upon preferential treatment of relatives (300).

There is heartbreaking irony inherent in the children's situation: except in the face of maladaptively low parental investment, they would not have concocted their dream of a togetherness transcending kinship. Biological ties have to a very real extent failed them, so they construct an ideal vision of a different, better kind of bonding. This ideal vision is in turn undercut by critical facts of evolutionary biology, which continue to operate just well enough to prevent realization of the children's dream, if not well enough to prevent the need for the dream in the first place. They are beleaguered, as Wershoven puts it, by "both ... traditional and ... modern" forces (1982, 111). In life, as in fiction, Cooke points out, humans "may occasionally try out behavioral innovations," but "over the long run, [most individuals] are likely to stay close to deep-set tendencies"; in short, "not many individuals can buck inbred tendencies [i.e., in themselves or in others] for long" (1999, 17, 18).

Thus the children do not succeed in preserving their little group intact. Joyce and Cliffe Wheater divorce, entering into new marriages that, unsurprisingly, prove sterile. Cliffe chooses as his next partner Syb Lullmer ("always chock full of drugs"), mother of the deceased Doll Westway and by any standards the most horrifyingly deficient parent depicted in the novel (Wharton 1928, 153). Trailing Joyce, the children are dragged from one hotel to the next, never achieving a settled place of residence--that "'big house in the country, with lots of dogs and horses'" that they dream of (331). Soon after the Wheater's divorce, moreover, the group begins to scatter. Reclaimed by their father, the two Buondelmonte children are carried off to live with a stepmother in Italy and not heard from again. Terry, whose health remains a question mark, is sent to school in Switzerland. Chip dies. Neither systematic education nor social supervision, apparently, is provided for the remaining three girls. Blanca's precocious and inappropriate behavior grows so outrageous that she is sent away to "a convent," yet eight-year-old Zinnie still is left to spend her days unsupervised in hotels (341). There she plays games on the elevators, alienates other guests, and cadges cigarettes for the lift boys with whom she in turn is becoming overly friendly. Making her social debut on the international hotel scene rather than in a stable social community, Judith is exposed to the dangers of unchaperoned excursions with persons of unknown background, e.g., "'some P'ruvians ... [with] two Rolls-Royces'" (343). (6)

Wharton's novel offers evidence that certain kinds of human quests, idealistic in spirit, may originate when basic adaptive mechanisms do not function properly. No matter what threats to fitness are caused by an altered social environment, however, evolved adaptive behaviors are likely in the end to prove more enduring than cultural fads or quirks. (The fate of cultural experiments like that undertaken by the Shakers sufficiently demonstrates the ultimate power of evolutionary forces.) Utopian projects such as the one conceived by the Wheater children illustrate humans' creative response to aberrant social conditions, valorizing their capacity to imagine alternatives to biologically-driven choices. Wharton argues, implicitly, that such visionary quests inspire empathy and awe precisely because they are doomed to be evanescent when ranged against the forces of natural selection. By the same token, her narrative excites readers' interest precisely because it highlights motives and actions deviating markedly from the ordinary. The Children thus supports Easterlin's theory that valued artworks do not merely represent ingrained "biological patterns" of human behavior, but display thought-provoking "divergence from them" (1999, 243, 246). In Storey's terms, "the raison d'etre of narrative is to deal with departures from the canonical" (1996, 134). The comparison Boyne makes at one point between Judith Wheater and Joan of Arc sufficiently indicates how Wharton herself regards the children's conception of a loyalty superseding biological ties (Wharton 1928, 46): theirs is a courageous and morally admirable project that will end with the martyrdom of the very individuals whose convictions have created and sustained it.

II. Mate Selection and Altruism

Boyne's own matrimonial designs are folded neatly into the central problem of the Wheater children's future. His awakening concern for the youngsters provokes and "sheds light" upon a quickly developing love triangle (Olin-Ammentorp 1995, 15). As the novel progresses, he finds himself attracted, nearly simultaneously, to two females, one of whom is just a bit too old to be a biologically plausible mate, the other just a bit too young. The "middle-aged" Rose Sellars very likely will bear Boyne no children, perhaps one at most if they do not delay consummating their union (Wharton 1928, 91). Certainly her long, childless marriage to Charles Sellars raises questions about her fertility. Boyne's initial impatience with her wish to defer their marriage for the traditional year of mourning perhaps reflects his unarticulated recognition that they are wasting the very last of her rapidly waning reproductive potential. That potential was, of course, considerably higher when he first fell in love with her; it has simply taken him a while to realize that she is no longer as desirable a mate as she was then. His encounter with the much younger Judith Wheater very likely has helped to stimulate that realization. The sight of Chip, the splendidly robust Wheater infant, causes both Boyne and Rose to feel a "pang" of yearning, to associate their planned union with the possible conception of offspring (131).

From the point of view of an evolutionary biologist, Rose's obviously low residual reproductive value helps to explain the wavering of Boyne's devotion to her. At the same time, intriguingly, she becomes less desirable to him precisely because she demonstrates so little ability to empathize with the Wheater children's plight and goal. Their divergent reactions to the Wheater children, i.e., the clash between his impassioned, idealistic empathy and her refusal to tilt at other people's windmills, indicates a psychosocial incompatibility that serves as yet another negative predictor for their future as a couple (see Daly and Wilson 1983, 303). On one level of Wharton's narrative, Boyne rejects Rose because she refuses to support a utopian, "crazy," and counter-biological project (1928, 118); on another level, his rejection of a potential mate who is unlikely to bear him children makes excellent biological sense. A marriage between Rose and Boyne might be in her reproductive interest, offering her one last small chance to conceive a child, but emphatically is not in his. Significantly, the novel does not generate much sympathy for Rose, nor are readers disposed to be disappointed by the collapse of her engagement to Boyne. Although he does not mention reproductive considerations explicitly, his ultimate rejection of Rose as a marriage partner corresponds perfectly to Darwinian predictions about mate choice.

Judith, in contrast to Rose, has her full reproductive life ahead of her. Boyne's first impressions of her are connected with fertility: she is surrounded by children. Devoted to the harum-scarum crew "scrambling over her," she is the very image of maternal "solicitude," and he takes pleasure in imagining himself as the partner of such an attractive young mother (Whrton 1928, 36, 3). The only flaw in the picture she presents to Boyne is that she is too young. The infant she holds on her shoulder is "much too heavy for her slender frame," and as child after child appears to join her, Boyne's admiration turns to outrage: "Why, it's barbarous; it ought to be against the law! The poor little thing--" (3, 4). An appealing image of maternal fecundity has been transformed into one of ugly exploitation: the fifteen-year-old Judith now strikes Boyne as a girl forced prematurely into childrearing, condemned to sacrifice her health to burdens to which she is not yet equal. Consequently he cannot feel comfortable thinking of her in erotic terms. The transfer of Boyne's affections from Rose to Judith, biologically explainable in terms of their divergent reproductive value, is thwarted by his sensitivity to the latter's extreme youth. Unlike many males portrayed in history, literature, and myth, he is reluctant to secure a monopoly on her fertile years through a mating commitment that for her would be psychologically and socially premature.

Boyne gives shape to his conception of Judith's intermediary state--half girl, half woman--by comparing her to the figure of Daphne in Greek mythology: "she was like a young Daphne, half emerging into reality, half caught in the foliage of fairyland" (Wharton 1928, 265). In making this allusion, intriguingly, Boyne reverses the original transformation, picturing tree-into-girl, rather than girl-into-tree. The Greek Daphne is a young woman pursued against her will by a high-status male, the god Apollo, who is determined to possess her sexually: her metamorphosis secures her from the threat of violation. In Boyne's image of Judith, she is "emerging into reality," i.e., the reality of adult sexuality, but, like a developing tadpole, still visibly entrenched in the identity she is in the process of outgrowing. She remains "half caught in the foliage" of childhood, which Boyne redefines as "fairyland," underlining the naive idealism, the penchant for make-believe, characteristic of that state. Childhood represents chastity, security, magic; adulthood offers the opportunities and dangers of "reality." According to Boyne's reversed pattern of transformation, the young girl gives up the safety of her pre-adult status (her identity as "tree") and with the completion of puberty becomes vulnerable to male ardor and pursuit, with their attendant risks. Not yet having completely outgrown the protective "foliage" of childhood, Judith Wheater is still off limits, not yet fully ripe for courtship although tantalizingly close. Her very nearness to adulthood provides readers with a measure of Boyne's selflessness in giving her up.

As Bulfinch's version of the tale indicates, it is Daphne's freshly developed womanly "form" that stimulates male desire (2000, 17). Apollo admires her hair, her eyes, her lips, her hands, her arms "naked to the shoulder," and is even more excited by "whatever was hidden from view" (17). His "impatient" lust causes him to behave "like a hound pursuing a hare, with open jaws ready to seize" (17). Daphne therefore regards physical metamorphosis as her best hope for escape: "'change my form, which has brought me into this danger!'" she begs her father Peneus, the river god (17). Even in tree form, Daphne continues for a time to excite her pursuer, so that he caresses her, much against her wishes, in her new state: "He touched the stem, and felt the flesh tremble under the new bark. He embraced the branches, and lavished kisses on the wood. The branches shrank from his lips" (17). Reminding readers of this tale, Boyne emphasizes an unattractive side to male ardency. The picture of Apollo attempting to "seize" the fleeing maiden in his "open jaws" is frighteningly reminiscent of predator-prey violence, but his embracing of the resisting bark and branches of the tree, as he seeks to fulfill his lust with Daphne even after she has lost human form, is even more repellant. To woo Judith Wheater at this stage in her development, Boyne implies, would be a "profanation" equivalent to Apollo's desperate and inappropriate fondling of the helpless, bark-bound Daphne (Wharton 1928, 312): selfish, opportunistic, grotesque. (7)

From the start, Boyne's interactions with Judith are characterized by ambiguity. The two of them establish a Peter Pan-Wendy relationship, playing the parts of Father and Mother to the other six children in an on-going game. Judith is, as Rose Sellars explains, a "'little-girl-mother'" (Wharton 1928, 38). Indeed, her ability to formulate visionary plans, to commit herself so passionately to a naively conceived and unobtainable goal, endears Judith to Boyne as much as do any of her other qualities (see Olin-Ammentorp 1995, 16). He acts on his interest in her as a potential mate only when it occurs to him that marriage to her is a possible mechanism, conceivably the only workable one, for achieving the children's dream of togetherness. As their efforts to keep their group intact are increasingly threatened by the activities of their various parents, Boyne comes up with a possible solution to their problem, namely, a marriage between himself and Judith. Once married, the two of them might assume indefinite guardianship of the other six children. Boyne thinks it probable that the assorted parents and stepparents would agree to such an arrangement, and his assumption appears reasonable. Such a happy resolution of the novel's central problem would require, however, that Judith yield all claim to her status as child. More important, she would have to regard Boyne as a mate rather than as a playfellow, elder brother, or foster parent. And this she is unwilling, indeed, unable, to do. The climax of the novel is a tearful scene in which Boyne attempts to comfort Judith about the group's future, explaining that he has thought of a way for them to stay together permanently. She short-circuits his proposal by asking, "do you really mean you're going to adopt us all, and we're all going to stay with you forever?" (309)

Faced with a girl who plainly views him as a fatherly protector rather than as a lover, and who identifies herself as a child despite the maternal responsibilities she has prematurely assumed, Boyne quickly retreats. Her reaction forces him to realize that, as Judith's suitor, he would simply become one more exploitative adult, all too like the others surrounding the young Wheaters. His hope of achieving a simultaneously altruistic and selfish outcome--saving the children by gaining Judith as a sexual partner--can be realized only at her expense. Insofar as his actions as temporary guardian of the seven children represent alloparental care, his behavior up to this point resembles that frequently observed in male primates. As Wilson explains, "important differences exist between female and male alloparents. Females generally restrict their efforts to the fondling of infants, play, and 'baby sitting'; males not only perform these roles but under various conditions also affiliate with infants as future sexual consorts" (1975, 350). Tempted by such a course of action, Boyne ultimately rejects it, standing alongside Mr. Jarndyce of Dickens's Bleak House by renouncing marriage to a quasi-ward who might easily have been coerced out of sheer gratitude into becoming his wife. (8)

Boyne seems also to be responding to incest-avoidance mechanisms, albeit second-hand. Once Judith has signaled that she regards him as a potential adoptive parent, it is clear that she will be uninterested in him as a mate. As numerous studies have shown, the absence of biological ties between two individuals does not prevent them from identifying each other as kin; the recognition of another individual as a relative is sufficient to prevent sexual interest from developing (Daly and Wilson 1983, 304-07). In Boyne's interactions with Judith, both parties play a confused mixture of roles. Sometimes they behave like equals, companions and confidants, as Boyne acts out "his desire ... to be one of the children" (Ammons 1980, 77). In other moments he very definitely assumes the adult, parental role and Judith that of child and ward. Boyne is, of course, by consent of her parents, Judith's temporary guardian, so that he stands literally in the place of a parent to her. And insofar as he tends to fraternize with the children as a co-equal, treating Judith with "elder-brotherly affection," similar avoidance mechanisms (those selected for to inhibit brother-sister incest) come into play (Wharton 1928, 247). These inhibiting factors are operating rather one-sidedly, evidently, since Boyne is less unreservedly inclined to regard Judith as a daughter or sister than she is to view him as a parent or older brother. Such difference is predictable: Dawkins points out that since their investment in any individual child is greater than that of their male partners, females typically will prove to be "more rigid in their adherence to [incest] taboos" (1992, 163). Because his sexual interest in her clearly has not been extinguished ("every vein in his body still ached for her"), it might well serve Boyne's biological self-interest to press his suit, urging Judith into a sexual relationship even against her inclinations. (Wharton 1928, 310). Very probably he could have persuaded her to marry him, using rescue of the other children as leverage. Therefore his decision to repress his ardor in deference to her feelings appears to exhibit an element of altruism.

The significance of Boyne's selflessness at this point in the novel's plot is heightened by the knowledge that Wharton originally projected a radically different outcome to her storyline: Judith was to marry Boyne, stipulating that he adopt the other six children. All seven were "always to live under his roof," with Judith in the uncomfortable double role of wife and "little sister" (qtd. in Wolff 1977, 381). In rethinking her conclusion, Wharton decided to show Boyne acting a far more disinterested part. Deciding that Judith's filial feelings for him constitute an insurmountable obstacle to fulfillment of his desires, he triumphs over "the pathology of the father-daughter sexual politic," as Ammons points out, and rejects "patriarchal incest" (1980, 182). He steps aside in order to provide Judith with a "chance to grow up" and "to live ... her own life" for good or for ill (Goodman 1990, 122, 121). Although his act in no way guarantees her a happy future, it "empowers her" (122), in that it leaves her free to seek a union unencumbered by the negative emotions associated with evolved adaptations inhibiting inbreeding.

At first glance, at least, his own future looks considerably gloomier. Because marriage to either Rose or Judith would give Boyne some chance of future reproductive success, his decision to remain single might appear, in terms of his own fitness, to be the most negative outcome possible. His tendency to be attracted to females who are for a variety of reasons unobtainable makes his continuing bachelorhood psychologically consistent, but still not adaptive from a Darwinian point of view. The fact remains, however, that Boyne's reproductive potential is intact; at the age of forty-nine, he may still at some later period in life choose a fertile mate and sire children in whom to invest. Nothing in Wharton's depiction of him or his state of mind at the conclusion of the novel suggests that such a future is particularly likely for him, but it remains a viable, if hypothetical, option. Readers cannot calculate Boyne's reproductive success with certainty in any case, since he is said to have enjoyed "in the course of his life so much easy love" (1928, 84). If children have resulted from these transient encounters, clearly he has not invested resources or paternal energy of any kind in them. It is nonetheless possible that his genes already are represented in the next generation, without his awareness and in the absence of any contribution on his part to his offspring's survival.

Wharton's emphasis on the extent of Boyne's sexual activity ("so much easy love") helps readers identify him as an ardent male who for most of his adult life has employed short-term mating strategies. His chosen profession, which has taken him to distant, underdeveloped parts of the world, has brought him into contact chiefly with women he would be unlikely to regard as suitable for long-term investment. Thus his actual "amorous episodes had been ... brief and simple," even as he indulged in elaborate romantic fantasies featuring the distinctly unavailable Rose Sellars, whose refusal to betray or leave her husband for Boyne ("faithful in spite of his pleadings") is eminently madonna-like (1928, 226, 40). "Something apart," she is the "one woman in the world whom he was half-afraid to make love to" (226, 84). She is, he belatedly recognizes, attractive to him largely because she is so "unattainable" (40) and hence so worthy of long-range commitment (see Raphael 1991, 82). His brief engagement to the newly widowed Rose, like his thwarted courtship of Judith Wheater, represents an effort on Boyne's part to optimize his fitness by changing his reproductive strategy mid-life. He plans to modify his professional activities, which up until now have been incompatible with long-term mating and paternal investment, to alter a way of life that hitherto has been dominated by low-cost sexual opportunities. (9) Depicting his powerful romantic yearnings--first for Rose, then for Judith--along with his easily activated sympathy for the Wheater children, Wharton illustrates in Martin Boyne the uniquely human ability to envision alternative adaptive options. He is intensely attracted to precisely those reproductive options he has as yet not exercised, i.e., investment in a long-term mate and in offspring.

Boyne's renunciation of Judith as a potential mate constitutes the most important moral victory in the novel. He validates her continuing status as child, along with her right to adult protection. At the same time he under-scores his support of the children's dream, their ideally envisioned common future in which all seven members of the group, including Judith, are to remain children together indefinitely. His altruism adds to the poignancy of the novel's statement for, of course, his self-denial in no way secures the children their wished-for future, any more than it benefits him personally. The final lines of the novel describe him as a "lonely" man (Wharton 1928, 347). To some readers, this has seemed a sad, even "bleak" conclusion (Wolff 1977, 381). Yet within the tragic outlines of its storyline, Wharton's novel constitutes a celebration: it lauds the power of the human spirit to forge ideals transcending the constraints of evolutionary biology. The book portrays the deleterious effect of Boyne's disinterestedness on his own future and fitness, just as it describes the children's failure to overcome the force of nepotism in their relatives' behavior or, alternatively, to harness that force for their own benefit. At the same time, however, the narrative accomplishes more than the mere unfolding of these negative findings. It stands as an enduring statement that the children's efforts to establish a "bond" stronger than "heredity" are heroic, that the triumph of altruism over genetic selfishness is admirable (1928, 47). Wharton offers strong support for Storey's contention that "if human life ... serves the selfish gene, it does so in variegated (and often demonstrably unselfish) ways" (1996, 177). In sum, she delineates circumstances in which counter-biological impulses are worthy of honor.

Appendix: Glossary of Terms

Alloparent: An individual, other than the biological parent, who helps to care for juveniles.

Adaptive: Behavior is regarded as adaptive if it contributes to the fitness of the individual performing it.

Altruism: Behavior promoting the welfare and contributing to the fitness of someone other than the individual performing it. (Note: Selfishness is defined as the opposite of altruism.)

Coefficient of relatedness: A measure of kinship varying from 0.0 (unrelated) to 1.0 (genetically identical), representing the probability that a given allele will be identical in the two individuals by descent from a recent common ancestor. The coefficient of relatedness between parent and child, or between full siblings, is .5 (i.e., they share one-half of their genes). That between aunts/uncles and nieces/nephews, or between grandparent and grandchild, or between half-siblings, is .25 (they share one-fourth of their genes).

Fitness: The reproductive success of an individual, commonly expressed in terms of the number of copies of its genes the individual succeeds in getting into the next generation.

Hypogamy: Mating beneath oneself, as measured by genetic quality, social status, material wealth, or other resources.

Kin Selection: Selection of genes causing individuals to favor close kin, owing to the high probability that kin share those genes.

Inclusive fitness: The sum of an individual's Darwinian fitness (personal reproductive success) and his or her influence upon the Darwinian fitness of relatives, weighted according to their coefficients of relatedness to the focal individual.

Madonna-Whore Dichotomy: In a species with high male parental investment, such as humans, a male is selected to discriminate between females he will only impregnate (the so-called "whores") and those with whom he will raise young (the "madonnas"). A male will welcome promiscuous females as short-term sex partners, but prefer to choose as a long-term partner one whose fidelity provides maximal assurance that her offspring also will be his.

Nepotism: Any discriminative behavior tending to favor an individual's relatives and hence to contribute to that individual's inclusive fitness.

Parental investment: Any investment by a parent in an individual offspring that increases the offspring's chance of surviving (and future reproductive success) at the cost of parental ability to invest elsewhere.

Reproductive value: An individual's expected future contribution to its own fitness.

Residual reproductive value: An individual's remaining reproductive value, as measured at a given point in time, taking into consideration age, sex, health, environmental conditions, and other pertinent factors.


(1) See appendix for glossary of specialized Darwinian terminology.

(2) For detailed discussion of W.D. Hamilton's theory of kin selection and nepotistic strategy, see Dawkins (1992, 89-108), Daly and Wilson (1983, 44-58). Dawkins's discussion of parental investment as an example of kin selection is especially useful (107-08).

(3) The theoretical framework, as well as the intellectual rationale, for undertaking biopoetic investigation of literary texts has been ably explained by critics such as Ellen Dissanayake (1999), Joseph Carroll (1995), Brett Cooke (1999), Frederick Turner (1999), and Robert Storey (1996)--to name only a few of the most prominent thinkers and aestheticians in a growing field. Readers unfamiliar with the theoretical and historical foundations of Darwinian literary criticism will find useful commentary in works by the above named authors (see Works Cited). The fundamental principle guiding literary interpretation based upon the Darwinian paradigm is, as Joseph Carroll states, that "literary works reflect and articulate the vital motives and interests of human beings as living organisms" (1995, 3).

(4) The environment is "aberrant" in the sense of being extraordinarily unlike that of the so-called E.E.A., the environment in which our human ancestors evolved and in which they consequently were designed to thrive. In Storey's phrasing, the twentieth-century individual is a composite of "various psychological adaptations to an ancient environment that no longer exists" (1996, xix).

(5) Ammons examines the cultural-historical implications of Wharton's "indictment of negligent flapper mothers" (1980, 165). It should be noted, however, that the novel provides an equally powerful portrait of negligent fathers.

(6) Killoran attempts to interpret this set of outcomes as benign: "most of the children are safe" (1996, 142). Such a reading seems scarcely tenable in light of the horrifying details Wharton offers.

(7) See Ammons's analysis of "the mythicized image of the American child-woman" for discussion of Boyne's dilemma in a wider context (1980, 176).

(8) Marriages (whether merely contemplated or actually achieved) between male alloparental figures and their female proteges are commonplace in both popular and high literature--from Webster's Daddy-Long-Legs or Gilbert's Mikado to Austen's Mansfield Park and Wharton's own Summer.

(9) Sensibar has argued that Boyne's behavior displays "erotic immaturity" (1988, 375), but biosocial analysis shows him making adaptive choices, in context, with the possible exception of his rejection of Judith as a long-term partner. That decision, arguably, may be viewed as altruistic rather than immature.

Works Cited

Ammons, Elizabeth. 1980. Edith Wharton's Argument with America. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Bentley, Nancy. 2003. "Wharton, Travel, and Modernity." In A Historical Guide to Edith Wharton, ed. Carol J. Singley. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bulfinch, Thomas. 2000. Bulfinch's Greek and Roman Mythology: The Age of Fable. 1859. Reprint. New York: Dover Publications.

Carroll, Joseph. 1995. Evolution and Literary Theory. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

Cooke, Brett, and Frederick Turner, eds. 1999a. Biopoetics: Evolutionary Explorations in the Arts. Lexington, Kentucky: ICUS.

Cooke, Brett. 1999b. "Biopoetics: The New Synthesis." In Biopoetics: Evolutionary Explorations in the Arts. Lexington, Kentucky: ICUS.

Daly, Martin, and Margo Wilson. 1983. Sex, Evolution, and Behavior. 2nd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Dawkins, Richard. 1992. The Selfish Gene. 1976. Reprint. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dissanayake, Ellen. 1999. "'Making Special'--An Underscribed Human Universal and the Core of a Behavior of Art." In Biopoetics: Evolutionary Explorations in the Arts. Lexington, Kentucky: ICUS.

Easterlin, Nancy. 1999. "Do Cognitive Predispositions Predict or Determine Literary Value Judgments? Narrativity, Plot, and Aesthetics." In Biopoetics: Evolutionary Explorations in the Arts. Lexington, Kentucky: ICUS.

Gayley, Charles Mills. 1893. The Classic Myths in English Literature. Boston: Ginn.

Goodman, Susan. 1990. Edith Wharton's Women: Friends and Rivals. Hanover: University Press of New England.

Killoran, Helen. 1996. "The Children: Metaphysical Allusions." In Edith Wharton: Art and Allusion, by Helen Killoran. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

McDowell, Margaret F. 1976. Edith Wharton. Boston: Twayne.

Nevius, Blake. 1953. Edith Wharton: A Study of Her Fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Olin-Ammentorp, Julie. 1995. "Martin Boyne and the 'Warm Animal Life' of The Children." Edith Wharton Review 12.1: 15-19.

Raphael, Lev. 1991. "'Bared to the Blast': Shame and Humiliation in Edith Wharton's The Children." Journal of Evolutionary Psychology. 12, 1-2: 116-29.

Sensibar, Judith L. 1988. "Edith Wharton Reads the Bachelor Type: Her Critique of Modernism's Representative Man." American Literature 60.4: 575-90.

Storey, Robert. 1996. Mimesis and the Human Animal: On the Biogenetic Foundations of Literary Representation. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Turner, Frederick. 1999. "An Ecopoetics of Beauty and Meaning." In Biopoetics: Evolutionary Explorations in the Arts. Lexington, Kentucky: ICUS.

Wilson, Edward O. 1975. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Wershoven, Carol. 1982. The Female Intruder in the Novels of Edith Wharton. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Wharton, Edith. 1928. The Children. New York and London: Appleton.

Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. 1977. A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wright, Robert. 1994. The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Biology and Everyday Life. New York: Vintage.

Judith P. Saunders is professor of English at Marist College in New York State. She is the author of The Poetry of Charles Tomlinson: Border Lines (2003).
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Date:Mar 22, 2005
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