In this quote from Part I of “The Descent of Man,” Wharton presents Professor Linyard’s point of view on the current state of popular literature. As a microbiologist and beetle-enthusiast, Linyard is well versed in scientific study, but he finds the scientific research mass produced to be empty and demeaning. The works published at the time are described as “optimistic” and light like “breakfast foods,” rather than “concentrated” like true scientific work requires (Pg. 11). This kind of “pseudo-science” is fiction or a pleasant read for the “faithful” average readers; it is not methodic research for scholars with data that can be tested and verified. Rather than targeting some esoteric group of intellectuals, the authors or “false priests” of these unfalsifiable works have focused on what sells, foreshadowing the eventual sellout of Linyard himself. And what sells is a book or a story that targets the majority of readers who ride the bandwagon together like an amorphous amoeba. Wharton’s previous conception for a book before his failed attempt at satire with “The Vital Thing,” entitled the “Unconscious Cerebration of the Amoeba,” almost seems like an attempt for the human to evolve out of the bandwagon or unicellular thought, to appreciate real science (Pg. 6). This being said, the title “The Descent of Man,” alludes to Charles Darwin’s work of the same name that attempts to explain this theory of evolution, an idea that too was ill perceived at first exposure.
The allusion to the Books of Samuel of the Bible serve a similar purpose, interestingly enough as the protagonist’s name is Samuel Linyard. Linyard wishes to satirize these popular fictions, to make “at least the little stone striking the giant between the eyes.” He tries to be little David in confrontation with the giant Goliath but is consumed by the popular giant in the process. Part of the reason Darwin’s “On the Origin of the Species,” was so hard to accept was the retreat from religion or the possibility that humans scientifically evolved from less complex organisms (monkeys as “amoeba” were more for satirical purposes) in lieu of the idea that God created all. This transitions quite nicely to the more rhetorical side of the quote. Throughout Wharton’s short story, she uses religious words like “faith,” “goddess,” “sacred,” and “priests,” this quote no less exemplary. Wharton’s use of irony here is quite clear in that Linyard is calling what he knows to be true science, “the real divinity,” and what he thinks to be “pseudo-science,” “a false goddess,” when really science and religion strongly diverge in the same way as Linyard’s intent and the audiences’ interpretation of “The Vital Thing.”
Wharton depicts the slow downfall of Professor Linyard as he sacrifices not only his integrity but the heightened sense of ecstatic passion he experiences only when pursuing his work. The quotation directly signifies his internal conflict as he rationalizes sacrificing his passion for the convenient flatteries of fame. This conflict is mirrored through imagery, diction and metaphor as well in the ever growing influence of capitalism as it manipulates and exploits the insatiable greed of consumers. He resents his wife as a voracious consumer and judges his peers for succumbing to “prudent capitalists” and “cowed wage-earners” (10). The battle comes to light in the extended war metaphor (23) in which ‘The Vital Thing’ infiltrates the popular forms of media and later the aspects of domesticity he loathes. The war imagery resurfaces on page 27, where his conflict grows stronger as he grapples with the steady decline of his pride versus the temptations of consumerism presented by his family.
His wife and children serve as representations of consumerism through their frivolous and unjustified desires and debts. This connection brings the proclaimed “battle” closer to home and all the more difficult for Linyard. The Professor sees the domestic aspects of his life as dull and lifeless, because they are characterized by the banalities of the cotidian. His passion lies within the ingenuity of his idea, supported through the heavily romanticized passage on page 4 in which his idea comes to him. The inversion of passion between his home and work suggests his inner desire not only for intellectual superiority but monetary gain as well. The conflicting desires for both pride and fame are made vivid through copious war imagery, resulting in his ultimate downfall, his conscious a scorched battlefield, descended irreversibly to shallow justifications of avarice.
Just wanted to pop in to the discussion here to note a couple allusions of relevance to Wharton’s “The Descent of Man.” The first is, well, The Descent of Man (1871), Charles Darwin’s second major work on evolution, and one in which he explicitly links the concept of evolution to the origins of mankind. If you’re interested, you can find it at Google Books or at Project Gutenberg.
Another, subtler allusion is contained in the title of Professor Linyard’s satiric/pseudo-scientific/smash-hit book The Vital Thing. In Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest (subtitled A Trivial Comedy for Serious People) (1895), Gwendolen observes that “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing.” Wilde’s play can be read here.
And of course, if you’re interested in more short stories by Wharton, you can find the entirety of the collection from which this story comes at Google Books or Project Gutenberg.
As Ned Harviss proudly proclaims his stratagem to Professor Linyard, so author Edith Wharton slyly commentates on the duplicity of the media and those in positions of influence. By displaying the ease with which Harviss and Linyard plan to manipulate their readers, Wharton exposes the convoluted nature of the media empire that controls the information the public receives. The cavalier nature of Harviss’s proclamation insinuates that business plans aimed at public manipulation are alarmingly frequent occurrences. Wharton implies that the media, and those in power, are untrustworthy. The phrase “another hundred thousand” pointedly marks the greedy, money-obsessed nature of the media, highlighting that the publishing company’s chief design is to exceed financially, not to educate the public.
The applicability of Wharton’s message to present times is particularly striking. In her mocking tone, Wharton reminds both the reader of the twentieth century and the reader of the twenty-first century that the media does not have his or her best interests at heart. Ironically, Wharton chooses to articulate her warning through the very media she condemns; she indirectly suggests that though the media has its faults, it is a necessary conduit which allows information to travel from the informed to the public.