Gothic literature was established in the eighteenth century with novels such as Walpole’s Castle of Otranto and Radcliffe’s Sicilian Romance. Authors utilised the gothic genre to address contemporary societal fears whilst heightening the reader’s imagination and causing sensation through terror. From themes such as patriarchal tyranny and religious oppression, the gothic genre evolved alongside its society. The Victorian fin de siècle Gothic fiction altered from its original genre because
‘The turn of the twentieth century [saw] the first merging of the Gothic with […] Victorian realism, under the premise of philosophical exploration’.Maria Beville,Gothic-postmodernism: Voicing the Terrors of Postmodernity (Amsterdam: Radopi, 2009),p.61.
Many fears arose during this period resulting from advancements in psychological theory as well as Darwin’s theory of evolution in The Origin of the Species. This caused heightened concern about the makeup of the human consciousness and counteracted with anxieties of devolution. Whilst class, sexuality, crime and aesthetics became major themes in late Victorian Gothic fiction, authors exploited the narcissistic obsession in society. Furthermore, by exploring the notion of good and evil as a co-existing entity in the human self, authors were able to rationalise the concept through satire. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is the embodiment of the fin de siècle and the novel represents many aspects of late Victorian fears. This paper will discuss the ways that Stevenson successfully portrayed the Victorian fin de siècle through the gothic genre whilst comparing the novella to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Virtue and appropriate behaviour feature prominently in the late Victorian period:
‘Moral uprightness was one of the foundations upon which British society supported itself.’Dennis Grube, At the Margins of Victorian Britain: Politics, immorality and Brittishness in the Nineteenth Century (London: I.B.Tauris, 2013),p.127.
Both Stevenson and Wilde explore the concept of virtue in their novels by examining the human consciousness. By creating the fictional double, the novels exhibit what the Victorian society attempts to supress, which is the binary opposite of appropriateness. In Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde the character of Dr Jekyll is portrayed as an ambitious and friendly man who superficially enjoys his wealth and his friends. However, oppressed by the society in which he lives, and becoming aware of his faltering tolerance, he delves into his inner self to explore the composition of his own consciousness. His alter ego, Mr Hyde, is the primal version of his self who finds delight in the purity of evil he experiences. Written in the form of a case study, Dr Jekyll confesses his experiment in the form of a letter that his friend receives after his death:
It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognize the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness,[…] If each,[…] could but be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil.Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (London: Penguin Books, 1994), pp, 70-71.
Stevenson demonstrates the duality of the conscious mind and its struggle to balance good with evil through the narrator’s stream of consciousness. Dr Jekyll suggests that in his original form, he has morality, yet he struggles to accept the ‘unbearable’ aspects of life, which his immoral side exposes. Relief, therefore, could only be experienced if they were to be separated into two individual entities. The primitive self is described as ‘unjust’, which suggests that it does not behave in accordance with what society deems as morally correct behaviour, as a result, this causes ‘remorse’ in the morally good conscience. Freedom from the ‘unjust’ is the only way that Dr Jekyll feels able to follow a morally righteous path. The final sentence in the above quotation satirises late Victorian society as Dr Jekyll describes how immorality exposes disgrace and causes feelings of penitence. The word choice ‘extraneous evil’ suggests that evil is external and therefore, created by the hands of society. By connecting sentences with semi-colons, Stevenson forms a union between good and evil as a natural result of societal expectation and, as Lord Henry Wotton suggests in The Picture of Dorian Gray:
People are afraid of themselves, nowadays. They have forgotten the highest of all duties, the duty that one owes to oneself. Of course they are charitable. […] But their own souls starve, and are naked. Courage has gone out of our race. […] The terror of society, which is the basis of morals, the terror of God, which is the secret of religion – these are the two things that govern us.Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 2001), p.18
Wilde establishes the way in which society stifles the self. Lord Wotton suggests that society deflects the primitive nature of man to one that has become morally constructed through fear. Lord Wotton refers to Kant’s philosophy of morality that states,
‘The first principle of duty to oneself lies in the dictum “live in conformity with nature” [and] preserve yourself in the perfection of your nature.’Immanuel Kant, ed. Mary J. Gregor, Practical Philosophy: The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p.545.
This suggests that Victorian society oppresses the natural quality of man.
Whilst Stevenson developed the double in Dr Jekyll and My Hyde through Dr Jekyll’s exploration of human consciousness due to his internal dissatisfaction with the world, Wilde developed the double through self-development and a need for sensation. His character Dorian becomes highly influenced by his charismatic friend Lord Henry Wotton who suggests that ‘to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul,’ (Wilde, p.18). This results in Dorian believing that ‘Each of us has Heaven and Hell in him,’ (Wilde, p.125). This clarifies that good and bad influence can pass from person to person resulting in a multiplicity of souls residing within the human body. If this is the reason for a duplicity of the self, it is explored by Dr Jekyll who muses that ‘in the agonized womb of consciousness these polar twins [are] continuously struggling. How, then, were they dissociated?’ (Stevenson, p.71). Freud’s structural theory suggests that personality is split into three parts, the id, the superego and the ego.
‘The id is defined as the seat of drives and instincts […] whereas the ego represent[s] the logical reality-orientated part of the mind, and the superego [is] akin to a conscience, or set of moral guidelines and prohibitions.’Theodore Millon, Melvin J. Lerner and Irving B. Weiner, Handbook of Psychology, Personality and Social Psychology (Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons, 2003), p.121.
This theory as suggested by Million, demonstrates that ‘personality is derived from the interplay of these three psychic structures which differ in terms of power and influence. […] When the id predominates, an impulsive, stimulation-seeking personality style results, (Million, p.121). This trait is found in The Picture of Dorian Gray when the young Dorian determines that his:
time ha[s] come for making his choice. Or had his choice already been made? Yes, life had decided that for him – life, and his own infinite curiosity about life. Eternal youth, infinite passion, pleasures subtle and secret, wild joys and wilder sins – he [is] to have all these things. The portrait [is] to bear the burden of his shame: that [is] all, (Wilde, p.85).
Dorian submits to the controlling factor of the id due to the influential personality of Lord Wotton. The balancing aspect of the superego becomes external and represented in the portrait, this allows Dorian to observe a physical depiction of his conscience. Wilde presents the alternating structure of Dorian’s consciousness by presenting his statement followed by a question. This allows Dorian to submit to his id because he believes that he has no choice. The repetition of the word ‘life’ has a destructive function as the dash and comma create fragmentation in the sentence that mirrors Dorian’s thoughts and suggests his lack of control in the world. Moreover, the sentence is long and uneven which creates an imbalance of the consciousness. Following this is a list of Dorians desires, the punctuation creates a punchy and fast rhythm representing the frenzy of its character and his grasping of control and is slowed down with a dash once the control is gained.
Late Victorian society developed an awareness of the self through evolutionary theories such as Darwin’s The Origin of the Species, and narcissism compromised by a fear of devolution. According to Bowler,
‘The Darwinian revolution […] and the emergence of cultural evolutionism were parallel developments that coincided in time […] the two ideas were soon linked by the suggestion that the primitive stone-age humans had evolved from ape-like ancestors.’ Peter J. Bowler, Charles Darwin: The Man and his Influence (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1990), p.191.
Evolution of culture caused society to fear atavism because degeneration could reverse humanity to its primal state, therefore, disintegrate modern life. Stevenson portrayed these fears in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by illustrating the character of Mr Hyde from a public and private perspective. Mr Utterson gives a good example of the various ways in which the character is perceived:
‘God bless me, the man seems hardly human! Something troglodytic, shall we say? Or can it be the old story of Dr Fell? Or is it the mere radiance of a foul soul that thus transpires through, and transfigures, its clay continent? The last I think,’ (Stevenson, p.23).
The beginning of the quotation suggests that Mr Hyde’s inhumanity is because he is prehistoric or primitive. Secondly, Mr Utterson ponders over his perception of the character as a personal dislike because of his rebellious nature. This is suggested through reference to Dr Fell who was openly disliked and mocked by his student Thomas Brown.
This last theory satirises the vanity of the late Victorians and their intolerance of the lower classes. For Utterson ‘The problem he was thus debating as he walked was one of a class that is rarely solved,’ (Stevenson, p.23). His conclusion, however, is that Mr Hyde contains a foul soul that radiates outwardly making his presence unpleasant.
Primitivism in the physicality of Mr Hyde is demonstrated to contrast with the public perception of the character. He is regularly given animalistic form, for example; he took a ‘hissing intake of breath,’ or he ‘snarled aloud into a savage laugh,’ (Stevenson, p.23). Stevenson is illustrating the degeneration of man as not merely a mental but physical phenomenon. The characters of both Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde adopt separate physical appearances that demonstrate a desirable narcissistic presence in Dr Jekyll and a degenerate undesirable looking Mr Hyde. Wilde’s approach is slightly different to Stevenson because the character of Dorian Gray remains beautiful. It is only through the portrait that the reader is able to observe the alteration of the characters appearance:
An exclamation of horror broke from the painter’s lips as he saw in the dim light the hideous face on the canvas grinning at him. There was something in its expression that filled him with disgust and loathing. Good heavens! it was Dorian Gray’s own face that he was looking at! The horror, whatever it was, had not yet entirely spoiled that marvellous beauty, (Wilde, p.123).
Dorian’s degeneration is unlike the Darwinian Theory, the characters sinful life does affect those around him yet he is still admired for his beautiful looks and status in society. The ugliness of Dorian is preserved in private and away from the public eyes. This demonstrates the importance of beauty for the late Victorians. What Wilde did do however, was establish the problematic elements of physicality. When Dorian Gray murders Basil Hallward, Wilde illustrates the beast in his character:
The mad passions of a hunted animal stirred within him, and he loathed the man who was seated at the table, more than in his whole life he had ever loathed anything. He glanced wildly around, (Wilde, 125).
Wilde demonstrates that an evil and monstrous soul can live in anyone, even the beautiful can hide a devious or wicked nature. In a time when the notorious Jack the Ripper roamed free, the public had only the criminology reports to refer to for peace of mind. Dr Bond for example, wrote the murder profile of Jack the Ripper:
“The murderer in external appearance is quite likely to be a quite inoffensive looking man, probably middle-aged and neatly and respectably dressed. He will be solitary and eccentric in his habits, also he is most likely to be a man without regular occupation, but with a small income or pension.”Richard N. Kocsis, Criminal Profiling: Principles and Practices (Totowa: Humana Press, 2006), p.4
Wilde utilised the theme of murder to create terror and fear in his readers. According to Emsley,
‘By the middle of the century the term ‘criminal classes’ was used to suggest an incorrigible social group – a class – stuck at the bottom of society.’Professor Clive Emsley, ‘Crime and the Victorians’, BBC History (2011) ≤http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/crime_01.shtml≥ [accessed 09 December 2014] (para, 8 of 15).
The Picture of Dorian Gray illustrates that crime can be performed in any class in society and just as easily concealed. Stevenson also used the theme of murder in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde but the crime is explored through the reaction of society, ‘London was startled by a crime of singular ferocity, and rendered all the more notable by the high position of the victim,’ (Stevenson, p.29). The sole witness described the victim as an ‘aged and beautiful gentleman’, (Stevenson, p. 29). Mr Hyde, however is described as ‘other’, to whom she ‘conceived a dislike,’ (Stevenson, p.30). Stevenson demonstrates the late Victorians outdated perception of crime and their dislike of otherness as perceived in the murderer.
Murder was not the only crime portrayed in the novels. Homosexuality is illustrated in both novels but more obviously in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Basil explains his love for Dorian in his art, ‘I see everything in him. […] I find him in all the curves of certain lines, in the loveliness and subtleties of certain colours,’ (Wilde, p.12). The Picture of Dorian Gray was being written in 1885, the year that Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act was enforced. This stated that
‘any act of “gross indecency” between men in “public or private” [is] an offence.Matt Houlbrook, Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957 (London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), p.19.
Subsequently, Wilde was arrested and imprisoned in 1895 for homosexuality and The Picture of Dorian Gray was used as evidence at his trial. Stevenson published Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde a year later although homosexuality is less obvious in his book. Mr Utterson is, ‘the last reputable acquaintance and the last good influence in the lives of down-going men.[…] so long as they came to his chamber, he never marked a shade of change in his demeanour,’(Stevenson, p.9). Stevenson’s subtle but provocative language is hidden amongst the class related subject to demonstrate also, that homosexuality could be found in all societies and all classes.
To conclude, the paper discussed the Gothic fin de siècle as represented in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Stevenson’s novel is the quintessential late-Gothic Victorian novel, because although both Stevenson and Wilde aimed to satirise late-Gothic Victorian society by preying on societal fears, Stevenson’s attempt was more comprehensive. Wilde covered several aspects such as doubling, crime and vanity. However, Stevenson explored a prominent fear in society at the time, which was devolution. Therefore, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde combined all aspects of the Gothic fin de siècle.
Beville Maria,Gothic-postmodernism: Voicing the Terrors of Postmodernity (Amsterdam: Radopi, 2009)
Bowler Peter J, Charles Darwin: The Man and his Influence (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1990)
Emsley Professor Clive, ‘Crime and the Victorians’, BBC History (2011) ≤http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/crime_01.shtml≥
Grube Dennis, At the Margins of Victorian Britain: Politics, immorality and Brittishness in the Nineteenth Century (London: I.B.Tauris, 2013)
Houlbrook Matt, Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957 (London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005)
Kant Immanuel, ed. Mary J. Gregor, Practical Philosophy: The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)
Kocsis Richard N, Criminal Profiling: Principles and Practices (Totowa: Humana Press, 2006)
Millon Theodore, Melvin J. Lerner and Irving B. Weiner, Handbook of Psychology, Personality and Social Psychology (Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons, 2003)
Stevenson Robert Louis, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (London: Penguin Books, 1994)
Wilde Oscar, The Picture of Dorian Gray, (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 2001)
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