The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a perfect example of late-Victorian Gothic fiction.

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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.’ [7]

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) ≤≥ [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) ≤

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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Goblin by Ever Dundas – Book Review

‘They merge. Those years before the war. The long summers, the running wild, playing cowboys and Indians, Martians and humans. I don’t remember when we first found the worksite, or when David told me his dreams of the sea, or when I became friends with the Crazy Pigeon Woman of Amen Court. They merge, and I jump forward and back. I must bring order.’ (Goblin, Ever Dundas, p.22)


Winner of the Saltire Society first book of the year award 2017, Goblin, by Ever Dundas is a brilliant and brave first novel. Set in both London during WW2 and in Edinburgh in 2011, the story is told in flashback. For me, the first half of the novel is the best, we meet Goblin as a nine-year-old tomboy with a love for animals and a passion for storytelling – both of which the protagonist collects.

Goblin has a difficult family life; a mother who doesn’t want her, ‘Goblin-runt born blue. Nothing can kill you. […] You’re like a cockroach,’ (p.5) a father who mends radio’s and barely talks and a brother (David) who spends most of his time in his bedroom. Left to her own devices, the protagonist, her dog Devil, and her two friends Mac and Stevie roam the neighbourhood and hang around in an abandoned worksite. As a collector of stories, Goblin enthusiastically attends the local church with Mac, ‘I loved the stories, turning them over in my head, weaving my own.‘ (p.24)  before meeting The Crazy Pigeon Lady who tells her tales of Lizards people from the realm below. The childhood innocence in these chapters, mixed with magic realism, break down the walls of adult reasoning and creates a wonderful suspension of disbelief.

But without giving away the story plot, the suspension of disbelief serves another purpose; to divert the reader (as well as the adult protagonist) from the truth. So, while the adult Goblin searches amongst her tangled past, she takes the reader along for the ride. We meet multiple parents, live life on the road, come alive on the streets and in the circus, explore love, death, desire, and hate – and somewhere in the middle we meet an impressive collection of animals – Goblin has it all. And as far as strong female protagonists go, she’s right up there with Anais Hendricks from Jenni Fagan’s Panopticon, to Janie Ryan in Kerry Hudson’s Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma, characters who are so real you might just walk by them on the street.
The only teeny tiny criticism about the novel is that the second half spans over a lengthy period of time and it felt a little rushed. However, there is so much to say about this novel, so many angles to discuss, from Queer Theory to Religion, from Myth to Realism, and as a graduate of English Literature I could have a field day studying this book but for now, as a lover of good books, I’ll give it a big thumbs up and a huge recommendation, it’ll be finding a space on my ‘keep’ book shelve.

Goblin, Ever Dundas (2017) published by Saraband

The Role of the Cross-Dressing Male in Literature For Children.


The role of the cross-dressing male in literature for children serves to either reinforce societal gender norms or criticise them.  In order for the genre of cross-dressing to exist, however, the implied reader must already live in a society where dress plays a significant part in gender recognition and is generally practised as a social norm. Transsexual activist Nancy Nangeroni quoted that ‘It is not gender which causes problems; rather it is the imposition of gender on an individual by another.’[1]  Due to the socialisation of gender in Western societies, the cross-dressing male in literature for children is treated as the ‘other’. By discussing David Walliams’s novel The Boy in the Dress in comparison to Terence Blacker’s Boy2Girl, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I will identify the key issues surrounding the cross-dressing male in literature for children such as masculine reinforcement, sexuality, humour, and gender performance.

Written in 2008, Walliams offers an original critique of the male child cross-dresser in his novel The Boy in the Dress by addressing the way that clothing can create ‘otherness’. The opening statement of the novel is ambiguous, ‘Dennis was different.’[2] This statement not only poses the question of what or who is Dennis different from but also puts Dennis into the category of ‘other’. The narrator proceeds by telling the reader that ‘When [Dennis] looked in the mirror he saw an ordinary twelve-year-old boy,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.11). This implies that Dennis is not ‘different’ because of his appearance but rather because ‘he felt different- his thoughts were full of colour and poetry, though his life could be very boring’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.11). In this quotation, the italicised ‘felt’ in addition to his thoughts of colour and poetry not only demonstrate Dennis’s aesthetic view of the world but also an unconventional representation of the traditional masculine expression. Social theorist Victor J. Seidler suggests that ‘expressing emotions allows men to connect to an aspect of their subjectivity that traditional forms of masculinity have denied them.’ [3] Walliams is demonstrating that Dennis is aware that he deviates from the stereotypical Westernised idea of masculinity and therefore, feels different.  

Masculinity in The Boy in the Dress, suppresses the protagonist’s subjective self. Walliams demonstrates this by exploring masculine reinforcement within the child’s family. When Dennis’s mother leaves home, his father makes a rule of ‘No crying. And worst of all- no hugging, (The Boy in the Dress, p.16). For Dennis, his father’s lack of emotion is a result of depression, (The boy in the Dress, p15). Fischer suggests that

men hardly disclose their personal feelings, and tend to conceal the expression of emotions like fear, sadness, shame, and guilt. This can be understood as a strategy to boost conventional masculinity.[4]

By repressing his feelings, Dennis’s father reinforces his masculinity to the detriment of his sons. The repercussions of his behaviour are installed in Dennis’s brother who tells that protagonist that, ‘Only girls cry,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.17). Walliams demonstrates the effects that masculine reinforcement has on Dennis’s freedom of choice. When the protagonist is encouraged to try on Lisa’s dress, ‘he imagines for a moment what he would look like wearing it, but then told himself to stop being silly, (The Boy in the Dress, p.83). Identifying his discomfort, Lisa reassures him by saying she ‘love[s] putting on pretty dresses. I bet some boys would like it too. It’s no big deal,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.83). This contemporary reaction to cross-dressing is a result of the ‘differences [that] have been found in the perceptions of men and women towards transgender behaviours and people. In general, women are more tolerant.’ [5]  Dennis however, is torn between what he desires and how he has been taught to behave, ‘Dennis’s heart was beating really fast- he wanted to say “yes” but he couldn’t,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.83-84). Walliams criticises the Western construction of masculinity by showing Dennis’s oppression due to the masculine reinforcement he receives at home.

Unlike Walliams’s criticism of masculinity, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, published in 1908 promotes masculinity in order to reinforce Western gender norms. The character of Toad is represented as a carefree independent and wealthy animal with a disregard for societal rules. Following his imprisonment for joyriding, Toad’s female prison guard suggests that he dresses as a washerwoman to escape, explaining that ‘You’re very alike in many respects – particularly about the figure,’ [6] The character’s genderless shape allows him the ability to disguise himself. Dress for Toad is one of the ways that he can outwardly expose his masculinity in addition to gender performance and reputation.   It is for this reason that he is delighted when the original washerwoman suggests she should be tied and up and gagged before he escapes as she wants to keep her employment, ‘It would enable him to leave the prison in some style, and his reputation for being a desperate and dangerous fellow untarnished, (The Wind in the Willows, p.80).  The word desperate in conjunction with dangerous reasserts Toads masculinity as he is proving not only that his cross-dressing is a necessary deviance but one that enhances his power. Moreover, whilst the cross-dressing incident is presented as humorous, ‘Toad’s behaviour simply reinforces the normative gender binary rather than engaging with the subversive function of the carnivalesque.’[7]  For Toad, cross-dressing is a way for him to misbehave and divert attention from his true masculine self and as a result, gender binary is reinforced.

Gender performance is a key trope in male cross-dressing literature and highlights preconceived assumptions of gender roles. In Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in the United Kingdom in 1884, the protagonist is encouraged to wear women’s clothing in order to obtain information. Huckleberry’s friend Jim suggests that Huckleberry ‘put on some of them old things and dress up like a girl?’[8] In this instance, the act of cross-dressing is a fun experience and supplemented by an illustration by E. W. Kemble. This shows Jim kneeling down behind Huckleberry and laughing, whilst Huckleberry looks over his shoulder grinning and posing in a feminine manner. Flannigan suggests that

male cross-dressing is used for comedic purposes. The male cross-dresser, adored in feminine apparel worn in such an inexpert manner that his true sex remains no secret is a well-established comedic strategy,’ (Flannigan, p.135).

Flannigan’s suggestion demonstrates the reaction that the cross-dressing male has on its audience but fails to address the problematic response. In order for the act of cross-dressing to be deemed as comedic, the implied reader must already assume that the male character is acting incorrectly according to his perceived gender role. Walliams identifies this problem in The Boy in the Dress, by raising the issue of female inequality and the difficulty of femininity. Lisa suggests to Dennis that it’s ‘Not easy being a girl is it?’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.124). Furthermore, cross-dressing Dennis discovers the difficulty of being a girl:

Remember to cross your legs when you are wearing a dress, and most importantly, Don’t catch the boys’ eyes as you may be more attractive than you thought! (The Boy in the Dress, p.138).

In the above quotation, Walliams explores some of the rules of femininity. Not only is he discussing the female etiquette of ‘cross[ing] your legs’ but also the ways in which girls are sexualised by boys. The exclamation at the close of the quote illustrates male dominance, as it is the female who must divert her eyes from the male. Moreover, when Dennis’s father asks his son if he enjoys wearing a dress, Dennis replies, ‘Well, yes, Dad. It’s just…fun,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.167). The pause before ‘fun’ suggests that the protagonist is searching for the correct word that will console his father. Walliams is, however, criticising the way in which cross-dressing in literature for children is perceived as humorous. For Dennis, cross-dressing allows him the happiness that he normally suppresses whilst in his conventional male role, ‘He felt so happy he wanted to dance,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.100). This then raises the question ‘why are girls allowed to wear dresses and boys aren’t? It doesn’t make sense,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.175).  Dennis can see how illogical the typical Westernised view of cross-dressing is.

Sexual orientation is often explored in literature for children when a cross-dressing male is a main character.  In Terence Blacker’s Boy2Girl, written in 2004, Sam Lopez, is persuaded to cross-dress as part of an initiation into the Shed gang. The gang decide that Sam should go to his new school wearing girl’s clothes for five days. The novel is written with first person multiple narrators with the exclusion of the protagonist. This immediately demonstrates Sam’s lack of individuality. His first reaction demonstrates a common reaction to male cross-dressing, “You want me to be some kind of fruit?”[9]  Fruit or fruitcake is a common slang word that refers to a homosexual. [10] This association derives from the Victorian fin de siècle when ‘widespread contemporary fear[s] that perversion and deviation [from gender norms were] agents of degeneration.’[11]

This notion is also identified by Walliams in The Boy in the Dress when Dennis is caught by his Head Teacher wearing the orange sequined dress in school. The Head Master expels the boy and tells him ‘I am not having a degenerate like you in my school’, (The Boy in the Dress, p.163). Cross-dressing is often thought of as sexually motivated.  ‘Male cross-dressing is perceived as inherently sexual in nature (either in a fetishistic sense or in a homosexual context),’ (Flannigan, p.49). Sam’s reaction to cross-dressing in Boy2Girl demonstrates that the remnants of Victorian fear still remain. Similarly, in The Boy in the Dress, Dennis’s brother suggests that boys who read girls magazines are ‘Woofters!’(The Boy in the Dress, p.56), which is another popular term to describe the homosexual man. Whilst cross-dressing is identified as deviant behaviour in Walliams’s novel, Harrison suggests that cross-dressing can be referred to as:

“Gender Deviance” [which] simply refers to an individual who falls outside of our ordinary everyday understanding of male/masculine and female/feminine.’[12]

This critique raises the question of how the male child cross-dresser can be legitimately deemed as deviant when he is still in the early learning stages of his life and may not be fully aware of the Western gender ideology.

Walliams addresses gender ideology in childhood as problematic. In The Boy in the Dress, Dennis becomes bored due to his confinement within a socially constructed gender role. The word boring is mentioned eleven times throughout the novel and cross-dressing allows him to ‘feel like he [doesn’t] have to be boring Dennis living his boring life anymore’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.107).  This quotation illustrates the stifling effect that conformity has over the protagonist. Cross-dressing gives him a feeling of liberty. Walliams demonstrates this freedom through a change in narrative voice, from the third person to first, ‘I can be whoever I want to be,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.107).  The ‘I’, allows the character independent thought, whilst the repetition of ‘be’ gives him freedom of choice and finally ‘whoever’ is gender neutral.  The action of cross-dressing gives Dennis insight into life without gender conformity and he tells ‘Lisa I want to thank you for opening my eyes’, (The Boy in the Dress, p.207). Walliams is teaching the reader that gender should not be defined by what one wears.

The idea of gender neutrality is found in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the author demonstrates Huckleberry’s non-conformity due to his preference of wearing no clothes and his inability to accept and conform to civilisation:

We was always naked, day and night,[…] the new clothes Buck’s folks made for me was too good to be comfortable, and besides I didn’t go much on clothes, nohow, (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Para.3 of Chapter 19).

In the above quotation, Twain demonstrates Huckleberry’s relaxed nature and how he is comfortable in himself without the stifling effects of clothing. In addition, the author points out that adults are a child’s source of clothing, therefore limiting their independence. Huckleberry’s nakedness makes him gender neutral as opposed to conforming to socially constructed masculinity.

Cross-dressing in literature for children is often used to either reinforce societal gender norms or criticise them. Walliams, however, demonstrates that cross-dressing simply means a person who does not conform to Western dress codes. Dennis identifies this in his Sikh friend because he is ‘the only one who [wears] a patka,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.63). Dennis asks, ‘Do you feel different Darvesh?’(The boy in the Dress, p.63). The emphasis on the italicised ‘you’ alters the tone of the question suggesting that Dennis is aware of segregation due social conformity of dress. Darvesh’s reply allows Walliams to highlight how otherness is socially constructed; ‘When mum took me to India at Christmas to visit Grandma I didn’t at all. All the Sikh boys are wearing them,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.63). Walliams is demonstrating how alienating clothing can be for children, not only in gender but also within a cultural context.

Walliams, at the end of The Boy in the Dress, addresses exclusion or ‘othering’ due to societal control over children’s dress. In order to include Dennis in the football match after his exclusion from school, the full football team dress in women’s clothing. Suddenly ‘There was a huge cheer from the crowd’, (The Boy in the Dress, p.192). Walliams normalises the act of cross-dressing to demonstrate that exclusion due to gender or cultural dress is unnecessary. The final message in the novel serves to convince the reader that clothes are irrelevant to gender;  Dennis notices a red jacket coming towards him ‘And then the red jacket turned into a man,’(The Boy in the Dress, p.196).This defies the contemporary Western ideology of gender binary through dress.

I found that many of the authors wanted to demonstrate the effects of socially constructed gender. In The Boy in the Dress, this meant that the protagonist felt alienated through his family’s masculine reinforcement. Both Walliams’s novel and Blacker’s Boy2Girl, highlight the discrimination towards the cross-dressing male, which illustrates an out of date notion of homosexuality being linked to dress. Twain aimed to deconstruct the gender binary by presenting a character that was not affected by gendered clothing, whilst Grahame used the act of cross-dressing to reinforce gender binaries. Humour was a trope in all of the novels which was a result of inadequate gender performance, however, this highlighted that gender is socially constructed and therefore, unnatural. Not only did Walliams attempt to deconstruct the notion of the gender binary and demonstrate how emotions are similarly gendered, he also encouraged his reader to believe that clothing is irrelevant to gender. The originality of Walliam’s novel arises from his exploration of feelings surrounding gender and gendered dress and how these restrict individual freedom and result in segregation.


Adams James Eli and Millar Andrew H, Sexualities in Victorian Britain (U.S.A: Indiana University Press, 1996)

Blacker, Terence, Boy2Girl (Oxford: Macmillan Children’s Books, 2004)

Bolich, G.G, PhD. Today’s Transgender Realities: Crossdressing in Context (North Carolina: Psyche’s Press, 2007)

Fischer, Agneta, Gender and Emotion: Social Psychological Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)

Flanagan, Victoria, Into the Closet: Cross Dressing and the Gendered Body in Children’s Literature and Film (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2011)

Grahame, Kenneth, The Wind in the Willows (London: HarperCollins Publisher, 1908)

Harrison, Kelby, Sexual Deceit: The Ethics of Passing (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2013)

Nangeroni, Nancy, in Into the Closet: Cross Dressing and the Gendered Body in Children’s Literature and Film, ed. by Victoria Flanagan (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2011)

Sedler, Victor J. in The New Politics of Masculinity: Men Power and Resistance ed. Fidelma Ashe (Oxon: Routledge, 2007)

Steen, Edwin B. and Price, James. H, Human Sex and Sexuality (London: Constable and Company, 1988)

Twain, Mark, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York: Charles L. Webster and Company)

Walliams, David, The Boy in the Dress (London: Harper Collins, 2008)

[1] Nancy Nangeroni, in Into the Closet: Cross Dressing and the Gendered Body in Children’s Literature and Film , ed. by Victoria Flanagan (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2011), p.258.
[2] Davis Walliams, The Boy in the Dress (London: Harper Collins, 2008), p.11.
[3] Victor J. Sedler in The New Politics of Masculinity: Men Power and Resistance ed. Fidelma Ashe (Oxon: Routledge, 2007), p.111.
[4] Agneta Fischer, Gender and Emotion: Social Psychological Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p.173.
[5] G.G. Bolich, Ph.D. Today’s Transgender Realities: Crossdressing in Context (North Carolina: Psyche’s Press, 2007), p.271.
[6] Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (London: HarperCollins Publisher, 1908), p.79-80.
[7] Victoria Flanagan, Into the Closet: Cross Dressing and the Gendered Body in Children’s Literature and Film (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2011), p.143.
[8] Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York: Charles L. Webster and Company), para. 9 of Chapter 10.
[9] Terence Blacker Boy2Girl (Oxford: Macmillan Children’s Books, 2004), p.44.
[10] Edwin B. Steen and James H.Price, Human Sex and Sexuality (London: Costable and Company, 1988), p.297.
[11] James Eli Adams and Andrew H. Millar, Sexualities in Victorian Britain (U.S.A: Indiana University Press, 1996), p.97.
[12] Kelby Harrison, Sexual Deceit: The Ethics of Passing (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2013), p.9.