Heredity in The Legacy of Cain from a historical perspective

The title of the novel, Legacy of Cain, interested me at the outset.  Cain is, of course, remembered as the first murderer of the bible.  He famously murdered his own brother, Abel.  If we are to interpret legacy as pertaining to the offspring and subsequent generations of Cain and combine these thoughts with Victorian beliefs concerning the inheritance of traits, we would expect to find that the offspring of Cain possessed similar personality traits as Cain expressed.  Actually, we do find that the descendants of Cain were continually more deplorable men than their fathers until God puts an end to their family tree.   However, if we ascribe to the Victorian beliefs of the time we might also expect to find that Cain had descended from those with similar tendencies.  Yet, Collins points out that there is no evidence of criminal behavior in Cain’s parents, Adam and Eve. (326) The question this poses to me relates to how the Victorians came to believe in inherited traits.

The concept that various traits, including diseases and personality disorders, were inheritable was a common belief in nineteenth-century Europe.  I read an article, “‘The Illusion of an Explanation’: The Concept of Hereditary Disease” by John C. Waller that details this and other related questions at length. (Waller, 2002) The Waller article reminds us that “their (Victorians) basis for making hereditarian claims was almost always invariably anecdotal rather than statistical.” (Waller, 2002)  Hence, there was no real scientific proof (statistical proof, at least) that demonstrated a link between heredity and traits. I also read that determining causation as being attributable to heredity might have been a way of explaining away things that were at that time unexplainable.  This makes me reflect on a few things that I learned in my History of Medicine course last semester.  The medical profession was attempting to solidify itself as a profession during the late nineteenth century, and the relationship between patient and provider was often tenuous.  One of the key aspects of a profession is a base of knowledge that distinguishes you from others.  Perhaps at a time when physicians were trying to win the support of the general public, it was beneficial for them to appear to always have “the answer” even if the situation was, in fact, unexplainable.  Perhaps having an answer to disease causation improved their reputation and helped ensure the survival of their profession, which was in jeopardy during this time.

Collins plays on this Victorian belief system through his portrayal of Eunice and Helena Gracedieu in Legacy of Cain.  The question is posed early in the novel by the Doctor, who says, “Are you one of those people who think that the tempers of children are formed by the accidental influences which happen to be about them? Or do you agree with me that the tempers of children are inherited from their parents?” (14) If I examine this work from the perspective of a student in the Medicine, Health, and Society (MHS) department, I must admit that the prospect of Eunice being predestined to follow in the footsteps of her mother causes me to bristle.  After all, the field I study is based on the belief that there are many other things that affect the life and health of an individual and that nothing is inevitable.  As Collins wrote, “You seem to have forgotten…that the child will have every advantage that education can offer to her, and will be accustomed from her earliest years to restraining and purifying influences, in a clergyman’s household.” (21)   

Yet for some reason, I expected that in the end Eunice would become her mother.  I especially felt this during the vision that she sees and the temptation she hears in the whispers of her murderess mother.  Instead, it is Helena who is the wicked sister.  We know enough about her mother to also expect some hereditary evil in Helena.  Collins threw me a curveball when it was Helena who became the attempted murderess.

Should I have been surprised?  Is Collins trying to show the complexity of genetics and heredity (including the limited understanding possible at the time) by having one character display evil traits and the other character display a compassionate and heroic disposition?  I am unsure.  I do know that from my MHS perspective, I must believe that there is hope that these things are not inevitable.  At the same time, if environmental factors matter, I wonder why would Helena end up expressing evil traits.  How could two sisters be brought up under identical circumstances have such different dispositions?  You could answer this question by saying that they had two different sets of parents and, thus, their traits were inherited from different parents.  However, this argument loses credibility when you consider that Eunice is the child of a murderess and, while you would expect her to be the evil sister, it is Helena the child of a Minister who bears the wicked and unpleasant disposition.  Ultimately, I have more questions than answers. 

Some of the other questions I have are:

1) What is Collins trying to say about Victorian-era women through his portrayal of Eunice and Helena Gracedieu, Miss Chance/Mrs. Tenbruggen, and Miss Jillgall/Selina?  

 2) Why is there no discussion, from Collins, about the inheritance of traits from the fathers of these women?

3) I also learned in my history course that the view of inheritable traits, while it may not be supported today, had backing well into the twentieth century.  Did Nazi Germany use this belief in inherited traits to persecute those of a Jewish background?  Can we link such beliefs to eugenics programs? 

Reference: John C. Waller. “The Illusion of an Explanation: The Concept of Hereditary Disease, 1770-1870.”  Journal of the History of Medicine. (2002) Vol. 57.  pp. 410-448.

Corey A. Kalbaugh

~ by coreykalbaugh on January 29, 2009.

2 Responses to “Heredity in The Legacy of Cain from a historical perspective”

  1. Corey,

    Thanks for the historical information and the medical perspective. Your questions are very provocative, and I look forward to discussing them in class.

    One thing I did want to respond to now, however, is your question about the two girls (Eunice and Helena) being brought up under identical circumstances and nevertheless acquiring very different dispositions. My response to this comes from personal experience as an identical twin: not only were my sister and I raised under the same circumstances but we technically have identical DNA, and yet we are in many ways different.

    I would suggest a lot of that difference could come from projected personas that my parents used to differentiate the two of us, and yet there were also distinct personality traits that my mother noticed between my sister and me from the time we were babies. Without going into too much anecdotal evidence, personally I have to admit that the way in which personal dispositions develop must be more complicated than just environment OR heredity OR some simple combination of the two.

    And on a personal level, I’m curious why it is so important to ask questions about disposition among close siblings and specifically twins. Clearly it is an issue worth discussing, as Collins certainly acknowledges in his novel. Yet, what I mean is that I have encountered many people who either want me to seem completely identical in look and behavior to my sister or they want to know which is the good twin and which is the bad. Why do other people care so much about categorizing twins this way? Why do the characters in the novel care so much about knowing whether Eunice or Helena is older?

  2. Really interesting reaction. I had the same prejudice that Eunice would somehow become her mother and fulfill everyone’s fears. However, looking back, I see significant foreshadowing that she would not become her mother. Even the name of Eunice’s early ‘nurse’ – Miss Chance – suggests that the inheritance of genes all comes down to a certain amount of chance and is not perfectly predictable. The doctor says, “Miss Chance… might have told you that the vices of the parent are inherited by the children.” If we interpret this as the personification of chance, the meaning is: Chance says/determines whether the vices of the parent are inherited by the child — which introduces more hope early on (more, at least, than some of the other characters feel toward Eunice’s success) that the mother’s vices will not be passed on.

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