Does the male parade his charms with so much pomp and rivalry for no purpose? Are we not justified in believing that the female exerts a choice, and that she receives the addresses of the male who pleases her most? It is not probable that she consciously deliberates; but she is most attracted by the most beautiful, or melodious, or gallant males. Nor need it be supposed that the female studies each stripe or spot of color; that the pea hen, for instance, admires each detail in the gorgeous train of the peacock — she is probably struck only by the general effect. Nevertheless, after hearing how carefully the male Argus pheasant displays his elegant primary wing-feathers and erects his ocellated plumes in the right position for their fun effect; or again, how the male goldfinch alternately displays his gold-bespangled wings, we ought not to feel too sure that the female does not attend to each detail of beauty. We can judge, as already remarked, of choice being exerted, only from analogy, and the mental powers of birds do not differ fundamentally from ours. [Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man 1874 rev. edition; quoted Kaye, pp. 104-5]

Richard A. Kaye's The Flirt's Tragedy (2002) contends that literary historians "skirt, misconstrue, or fail to consider the full implications of The Descent of Man" (87). In particular, he argues, this work's theory of sexual selection "implicitly questioned prevailing Victorian conceptions of the passive female and . . . rendered the conventional Victorian male, with his austere, well-managed attire, an aberration in history" (90):

Although Darwin's much-repeated proposition that female coyness stemmed from a basic inequity in sexual interest was hardly scandalous to those nineteenth-century readers accustomed to images of female sexual passivity and purity, the evolutionist's key ancillary contention — that males might need to render themselves ornately bedazzling (not just tastefully attractive) for a female chooser — did undermine a potent strain of prevailing Victorian [belief]. . . . The portrait of the male encouraged by The Descent was far more startling. The most successful males, according to Darwin, were not necessarily the "vigorous" or "best armed" but rather the "most attractive." And although Darwin did acknowledge that with sexual selection factors such as physical prowess were important, he explained that "females are most excited by, or prefer pairing with, the most ornamented males, or those which are the best songsters, or play the best antics." [Kaye, 98]

According to Kaye, the "entwined questions of female dominance and male beauty" made his theories of sexual selection so difficult for his contemporaries to accept, for they "not only emphasized the role of female choice." They "also suggested that in the heightened sexual contest of courtship, female judgment would determine the fates of particular men" (96). Kaye then explores the way these ideas appear in the works of George Eliot and Thomas Hardy.

In addition, The Flirt's Tragedy advances a second argument that has special relevance to the Aesthetes and Decadents of the late nineteenth century.

Darwin's depiction of a powerful female in command of what amounted to an elaborate male beauty contest laid the philosophical groundwork for an aesthetic of purposeless, "unnatural" dimensions. In a courtship plot now sanctioned by Darwinian nature, the marriage-postponing New Woman and the self-primping dandy were suddenly united in their shared roles not so much as denaturalized subjects (for Darwin the scientific empiricist, an impossibility) but as figures who simply took nature's "laws" to extreme conclusions. just as the female might come to savor the erotic power accorded to her in natures scheme, so too did a love of blue china, Oriental bric-a-brac, or peacock feathers reveal a thoroughgoing devotion to the accoutrements invaluable to nature's courtship laws. Embedded in the theory of sexual selection was the suggestion that both the New Woman and the aesthete-dandy might relish their identities in the absence of courtship itself. [85-86]

Kaye's often fascinating study does not always make clear if the parallels between Darwin and the novelists are matters of influence or confluence — if, that is, individual writers consciously or unconsciously draw upon Darwin or if they independently explore the same issues. The volume, however, has many strengths in addition to its examinations of Darwinian ideas, including valuable summaries of Darwin's appearance in recent criticism, a history of the notions of coquette and flirt, and interesting contributions to theory of narrative.


Kaye, Richard A. The Flirt's Tragedy: Desire without End in Victorian and Edwardian Fiction. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002.

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Last modified October 2002