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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1714

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Author: Elizabeth Gilbert (b. 1969)

Publisher: Penguin (New York). 512 pp.

Type of work: Novel

Time: 1760–1883

Locales: Richmond, England; Philadelphia; Tahiti; Amsterdam

Alma Whittaker, born into a life of privilege in early nineteenth-century Philadelphia, becomes an exceptional scientist. Through the story of her life, this book explores the intellectual and cultural revolutions of the nineteenth century, while also pursuing the overarching theme of conflict between reason and mysticism.

The Signature of All Things follows the life of the fictional Alma Whittaker from her birth in Philadelphia in 1800 until her death in Amsterdam in 1883. The narrative also expands backward into the second half of the eighteenth century in order to consider the early life of Alma's father Henry Whittaker (born in 1760 in Richmond, England). The intertwined lives of Alma and Henry allow the novel to follow a historical narrative that gradually evolves from the expanding imperial and trade networks of the eighteenth century into the scientific and intellectual currents of the late nineteenth century. At the heart of the novel is the clash between reason and belief, as the scientifically inclined Alma negotiates her relationship with Ambrose Pike, a brilliant natural history illustrator, who espouses mystical faith practices. Equally important in this novel is an interest in considering various models of moral value. As the characters struggle to understand themselves within the social, moral, and religious structures of their time, they each come to uphold a system of values that is more individual (for Henry, it is the pursuit of money; for Alma, it is honing the rational scientific mind; for Beatrix Whittaker, Alma's mother, it is wisdom). While the story of Alma and her family is told, a narrative about love, sacrifice, and the complexities of human relationships is woven throughout book. Finally, through the story of one life, the book attempts to consider the complex relationships among all life on Earth. The Signature of All Things offers, fundamentally, a consideration of the significance of an individual human life within the larger natural and social rhythms of the world.

The story of the Whittaker family follows the rise of Henry from humble origins to enormous wealth and stature. Son of an arborist at Kew Gardens, Henry began his entrepreneurial pursuits by stealing botanical specimens from the collection of Sir Joseph Banks for resale to naturalists throughout Europe. Once caught (by his own father), Henry's audacity manages to impress Banks, who then, by way of punishment, sends him off on an expedition with the famed Captain Cook. After several years of working for Banks, Henry and his patron part ways and the young man, with the support of the Dutch East India Company, makes his fortune by establishing a cinchona plantation on the island of Java. Legally, the cinchona samples that Henry had collected belonged to Banks and his garden at Kew. Likewise, all the money with which he left England also consisted of Henry's ill-gotten gains from his days of thieving. Thus, Henry laid the foundations for his vast fortune on unethical decisions. Furthermore, he turns his back on his native England in a traitorous decision to align his fortunes with the Dutch instead of the British. Yet Gilbert is not interested in constructing The Signature of All Things around typical social and moral standards. Henry is virtually a heroic father figure in this novel who, up until his final months of life, continues to earn money hand over fist. Unsurprisingly, his business ventures are not ethically selected. Nevertheless, more than any other character in the book, Henry appears to live a happy and self-satisfied life. He has a content marriage, a loving child who cares for him in his old age, and a loyal network of business associates.

Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of multiple books. Her publications include two memoirs, Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything across Italy, India, and Indonesia (2006) and Committed: a Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage (2010), as well as the novel Stern Men (2000).

Alma, born into the privileged household of Henry Whittaker, leads an exceptional but lonely childhood and receives an excellent yet unorthodox education from her mother Beatrix. She learns multiple languages, gains an affinity for ancient Greek and Latin, and reads extensively in history, philosophy and, most especially, natural history and botany. At the family dinner table, she spars with the greatest minds of Philadelphia and many visiting elites who pass through the city. Both Beatrix and Henry encourage their daughter to be outspoken and to argue her points, even though these ideas are in conflict with accepted feminine protocols of her era. As she matures, Alma begins to make contributions to scientific publications and despite her gender is eventually able to gain recognition as a scientific thinker of her day. Just when it appears that she will never marry and her life on her family's estate begins to feel confining, she discovers an all-engrossing passion for the study of mosses. She begins to understand that the world functions on multiple parallel levels—of which the two most important to her are "human time" and "moss time"—as she follows the minute territory battles waged over decades by the moss colonies on her family estate.

Alma's true mental inspiration does not come until later in life when she meets and rapidly marries Ambrose Pike, a natural history illustrator whose prints of orchids have enchanted her. Although their marriage proves unhappy, it becomes a catalyst for significant changes in Alma's life.

Ambrose introduces Alma to the possibility of a mystical side of human and natural existence. He claims to be able to see evil and he also believes that he can communicate mentally with Alma. She believes this as well, though ultimately their mental communication leads to significant misunderstandings, which fuel the disintegration of their marriage.

Alma develops a new clarity about science, and she begins feverishly to draft her "Theory of Competitive Alteration," which is immediately apparent to the reader as a cognate concept to that of the "survival of the fittest" elaborated in Charles Darwin's The Origin of the Species. Unsurprisingly, though, for a book that focuses on the intersection and competition between rational thought and mystical faith, Alma leaves the reader with the unsatisfied doubt of how this theory can really offer an all-encompassing narrative of the natural world, as it does not explain self-sacrifice and altruism as practiced by humans and animals of high-level intelligence. Further, Alma's excitement with being one of three scientific minds worrying through the concept of the survival of the fittest resonates with the novel's period interest in mental communion between human minds.

While much of the plot of the book exists in order to further elaborate the essential conflict between Ambrose and Alma (the mystical versus the rational), The Signature of All Things is also concerned on a more mundane level with the complexity of human relationships. Although each figure in the novel espouses a unique set of guiding values, they are, nonetheless, bound together into a messy, interrelated network of social and familial connections. The figures are related to one another almost mathematically, through oppositional pairs and interconnected triangles of relationships. Alma and Ambrose are one of these oppositional pairs, and relationship is later triangulated through the introduction of a Tahitian man named Tomorrow Morning.

The oppositional and triangulated relationships produce a feel of balance and symmetry to the novel, which is seen more overtly when Alma develops a close relationship with her mother's estranged brother and his family. This bond counterbalances Beatrix's own stubborn refusal to resume contact with her relatives. The rather obvious structural metaphor for the relationships in this novel is the "circle of life," which seems to dictate and drive the protagonists' actions.

Perhaps because of this overarching intellectual and moral structure to the novel, the story does plod its way through the decades of Alma's life. It also moves through other parts of her life with jarring suddenness, so that the reader is at one moment considering a promising woman in her early twenties and at the next is asked to recalibrate in order to reimagine Alma as a woman in her fifties. Of course, this allows Gilbert to remind the reader of the rapid passage of time, but it also has the effect of making the flow of the novel appear choppy and unnecessarily constructed.

More rewarding is the novel's interaction with the cultural and historical worlds of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The presence of known historical figures, like Sir Joseph Banks, as characters within this historical novel lends it some historical heft and intellectual interest. Particularly enjoyable is the section that showcases White Acre, the Whittaker family estate just outside of Philadelphia and at its prime in the early nineteenth century. The first decades of the nineteenth century could easily be considered the heyday of Philadelphia's cultural, scientific, and artistic significance. Located above the banks of the Schuylkill River, White Acre captures some of the character and excitement of this historical moment. Henry is British-born, his wife is Dutch, and their daughter is bilingual. They are cosmopolitan in their connections and keep up a steady stream of visitors from throughout the globe. Thus, though situated in a peaceful corner of the young United States, they are nevertheless at the hub of the great intellectual, industrial, and economic strides of the early nineteenth century.

The Signature of All Things is a hefty text and requires some degree of intellectual cooperation and patience on the part of its reader. The rewards, though, are an enjoyable immersion into the cosmopolitan, historical (albeit fictional) moment of the Whittaker family. Because of its close affinity to the concerns and cultural context of the nineteenth century, this novel will likely most appeal to those who already enjoy the quirky, quixotic literature of that era.

Review Sources

  • Alter, Alexandra. "Elizabeth Gilbert's Epic Return to Fiction." Rev. of The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Wall Street Journal 262 (6 Sep. 2013): D6. Print.
  • Maslin, Janet. "A Rare Cutting from a Garden of Another Era." Rev. of The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert. New York Times 163 (30 Sep. 2013): C1–C4. Print.
  • Rev. of The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Library Journal 138 (1 May 2013): 59. Print.
  • Rev. of The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Publishers Weekly 261 (6 Jan. 2013): 52. Print.