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Masculinity In Victorian Gothic Novels English Literature Essay

In both Robert Louis Stephenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, social expectation reveals anxieties surrounding sexuality in the Victorian period. Stephenson’s novel depicts the masculine as a vehicle of self denial where the protagonist Jekyll will not allow himself to surrender to his immoral alter-ego. In a similar way, the novel Dracula depicts sexual power as a major threat to masculinity, whereby the male characters refuse to permit the females to act upon their sexual desires for fear that such liberation will destabilise patriarchal control. Whilst Victorian ideology is not outwardly challenged in the novels, as liberation sexual or otherwise is entirely condemned, investigating the function of the masculine reveals a somewhat radical gender ideology which contests Victorian expectation.

In general, critics comment on oppression of the female within the Victorian period and overlook the same subjugation faced by men. Female disempowerment is commonly recognised whereas male suffering in the context of the same social rigidity is often omitted in criticism of the time. Critic George Landow comments that ‘feminist analysis of the Gothic focuses on the concern of the stereotyping of the female characters according to male fantasy’, however Stoker’s Dracula indulges the male imagination by subverting stereotypical female characters and allowing women power through sexual liberation. Stoker challenges Landow’s comments that it is only the feminine that suffers under marginalisation of the stereotype by presenting masculine subjugation as a consequence of social restraint. Critic Cyndy Hendershot’s work on male oppression in Victorian society further challenges ideology of the time. She argues that, generally, the notion of Victorian masculinity is ambiguous as stereotypical and presumptuous representations of male characters are rarely questioned. Stefan Collini is a critic who acknowledges the ambiguity surrounding representations of Victorian masculinity. He comments that there appears to be a general consensus of gender ideals whereby the accepted single, rigid idea of Victorian masculinity remained unquestioned. Collini suggests that the concept of Victorian masculinity as heterosexual rises from an unquestioned assumption of this as the norm. As a result, it seems that the novels work to challenge accepted roles of gender and sexuality within the Victorian period.

Within Victorian society, one of the fundamental concerns was the preservation of reputation. Alongside this concern lay an anxiety over sexuality and how to express and, in turn, suppress, sexual desires. In many ways, the oppressive nature of society, and consequently the inability for men, as well as women, to be sexually expressive, only heightened the fascination of a more sinister side of sexuality. In Jekyll and Hyde, there is a major emphasis on the value systems within Victorian society, especially with regards to their concern to preserve reputation. This is made evident through the characters of both Utterson and Enfield, both respectable members of the society who consider gossip as detrimental to a person’s reputation. Dr Jekyll’s major concern is the way in which others perceive him and he is conscious to maintain an upstanding reputation throughout the novel. On the other hand, the character of Hyde is presented as wholly monstrous and as a means through which Jekyll can become uninhibited, unleashing the emotions society compels him to contain. The characters are anxious to remain within the boundaries of social expectation, yet this overbearing force of constraint is often detrimental as it is clear in both novels that what is constantly suppressed is ultimately released.

It is interesting to consider the role of the male characters within the novels as it is evident that the masculine is not, as it would first appear, prioritised. Moreover, the omission of the female, which would generally suggest lack of authority on the part of the feminine, suggests here that the male characters are problematic to themselves, exposing the weakness of the male in a supposedly patriarchal society. In Jekyll and Hyde, the way in which the male characters are so evidently anxious about women and sexuality, despite the fact there are no predominant female characters, suggests that the masculine sphere is continually threatened by female influence. In many ways, the removal of the feminine exposes the flaws of the masculine, and shows that it is not the female who causes the male to suffer but the male alone. The threat of female sexual expression despite the lack of females within the novel demonstrates the psychological turmoil the men face under the constraints of the Victorian society. Dracula uses female sexuality as a threat to men, again demonstrating the power that women hold over the men and consequently emphasising the weakness of the male.

One of the key themes within Stoker’s novel is the fear surrounding sexual expression. Female sexual expression is seen as a threat which provokes a form of pleasure in the male imagination. The characters are liberated from the pressures of social constraint by means of the imagination, through which they can give a free rein to their sexual desires. Female sexuality is fundamental to the novel’s exploration of the role of the male within Victorian society as the novel shifts power from one gender to another, as the females exercise their voluptuousness and the men act to maintain social order. Critic Heath comments that feminism ‘makes things unsafe for men, unsettles assumed positions and undoes given identities’. Stoker’s Dracula confirms this theory in its exploration of sexually powerful women who threaten patriarchal authority. On the other hand, the way in which the female characters transform into vampire vixens is not categorically a feminist depiction as the females simply transform into embodiments of Dracula, meaning that they shift and take on a masculine form in order to gain power. The three females who become sexualised are clearly representations of gender subversion as they seek to dominate Harker and use him to fulfil their own sexual urges. Yet, in many respects, these females must adopt the role of the male in order to acquire any form of power. Their sharp teeth, which they are determined to bite Harker with, are undoubtedly phallic symbols which epitomise the penetration of the victim. Ultimately, the way females attain power in the novel is through masculinity, therefore gender ideals are not subverted in this sense. Although female characters in the novel are permitted a degree of power and sexual liberation, masculinity remains as the more powerful position.

Stoker uses Freudian theory in his novel in order to examine sexuality in the Victorian period without appearing overtly critical of the society in which he lived. The vampire element of the novel distances the reader from the society being described and yet there are noticeable parallels which suggest Stoker’s deliberate attempt to challenge accepted ideology.

Dracula begins in a description of Jonathan Harker’s description of how he arrives at the castle. Harker uses the word ‘uncanny’ in this description which immediately makes reference to Freud’s theory, published in 1919, on ‘the uncanny’. This theory is referenced throughout the novel, as the vampire who brings about death with his mouth, is representative of the first stage of psychosexual development, according to Freud. It is at this stage where, Freud believes, the person develops the compulsion to destroy that which is living.

The characters of Lucy and Mina are presented as being wholly devoted to the men in their lives. This innocence depicts these women as both docile and two-dimensional. Dracula threatens to change these women into ‘devils of the Pit’ and give them power through sexualisation, and it is only through these transformations that the female characters may acquire a voice within the text. When Lucy Westerna is transformed into a sexual being by Count Dracula, she changes from a weak and passive female character into a vampire vixen who seeks to satisfy her own sexual desires. She is at first submissive at the hands of the male characters but, once she becomes sexualised, she hunts for to use men for her own advantage and fulfil her sexually.

Stoker’s Dracula investigates the possibility of a kind of ‘fluidity’ within gender roles. When Lucy transforms into a ‘voluptuous’ vampire, any potential male suitor is warned off at the demand of any form of objection to established sexual identity. The men are perturbed at the prospect of a woman usurping power and subverting accepted roles. Lucy’s transformation is seen as so insubordinate of social expectation that Van Helsing’s men are determined to destroy her in an attempt to reinstate social order. The men are fearful that Mina will also be transformed and dedicate themselves to controlling female sexual behaviour in order that the women do not become disparaged socially and therefore incapable of any relationship with them. The men’s fears over the women’s transformations are entirely selfish as they feel unsafe with any attack on social order. Dracula mocks them saying ‘your girls that you love are mine already; and through them you and others shall yet be mine’. He suggests here that his transformation of women into sexualised vampire vixens, where their sexual desires are uncontained and liberated, leaves men exposed and will ultimately destroy patriarchy within society.

Stoker depicts Victorian horror at the thought of a sexually liberated woman through his description of Harker’s own fear at confronting the vampires. His confusion surrounding the kiss of the vampire, where he feels both desire, in his ‘longing’ for the kiss, and ‘deadly fear’ at the same time, is representative of the way that Victorian society constrained ‘the mobility of sexual desire’ for men, as well as for women. His confusion as to whether he was dreaming in his visions of pleasure as the women approached him suggest that he will not allow himself to consider any sexual desire as real and he will not confront his feelings. He decides that if the vampires are more than just visions then they will drink his blood, making themselves stronger and, in turn, weakening him. However, he is still fearful of these vampires if they are simply visions as they still threaten to drain him of semen, as they are providing him with sexual pleasure, as he lies in ‘languorous ecstasy’. Harker’s weakness as a male is revealed when he is described as being both sickened and excited by the thought of any sexual contact with the female vampires. This demonstrates the oppressive nature of Victorian society in that Harker was forced to subdue his desires as he did not have the power to act upon them. The way in which Stoker depicts Harker’s fear in losing valuable fluid, whether blood or semen, in either situation, presents an image of the collapsing patriarchal structure of Victorian society. Stoker may be warning men of this social change, but it seems more likely that he is encouraging social ideology to be reconsidered.

The function of the vampire in the novel can be considered as a representation of sexual oppression. The male characters in Dracula all fight to contain female sexuality as they panic for their own wellbeing. In Christopher Craft’s essay on gender and inversion in the novel, he argues that Dracula uses gender stereotypes in order to encourage exploration into sexuality and in order that social expectation can be re-imagined. He comments that the novel’s depiction of transformation, whether from victim to vampire or from vampire to victim, permits an investigation into sexuality and gender.

Often, the way in which the novel challenges oppressive Victorian society is overlooked in favour of its apparent denunciation of gender inversion. Dracula seems to imply a failing on the part of women who seek to subvert conventional social roles, and yet in many ways the females are not permitted any form of power as they adopt masculine qualities when they are transformed into vampires. It can be said that gender roles are not definitively reversed in the novel, as the females must become male as they become vampires. In becoming male, the female vampires lose any maternal sense as they prey on innocent children and they become penetrators in their desire to suck blood from their victims. The novel, therefore, has no real female representation, suggesting that Stoker was not setting men and women up against each other but commenting on society as a whole.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a novel which confronts anxieties of the Victorian period. The narrative presents the idea of one body which contains two opposing personas. Dr Jekyll, who is well-educated and an upright member of society is contained within the single body alongside the wholly immoral Mr Hyde. Dr Jekyll’s underlying desire to liberate himself from the oppressive society in which he lives is outplayed through his alter-ego Mr Hyde, who enjoys the freedom of acting upon his desires and human urges. This representation seems to emulate Victorian society’s deep rooted fascination with emancipation from social imprisonment.

Many critics suggest that masculinity is often presented as an adaptable and indefinite sphere within the novel, a factor which has permitted a degree of reimagining the concept of the male in literature. Critic Cohen argues that from as early as the 1880s, ‘fictional depictions of English masculinity often narrativise the difficulities of male embodiment as a splitting within the male subject precisely in order to assert new modes of self-representation’. He suggests here that the male figure was less frequently written as a stable representation and was more commonly represented as a character with more than one persona.

The image of Victorian London presented by Stephenson is a society almost entirely lacking in females. The only woman who is present in the narrative is the maid who witnesses the murder of Sir Danvers Carew. Her status instantly suggests that the woman is lower class and she is presented as an almost insignificant member of society. She describes the body of Sir Danvers Carew as ‘beautiful’. This is the only instance novel in the novel where there is any form of interaction between the genders and, even this interaction is presented as non sexual. The consequences of such a repressive society are clearly detrimental to the people who inhabit it, as Dr Jekyll proves through Hyde, and this oppression is demonstrated through the lack of open sexual desire within the novel. Furthermore, the absence of women within the novel suggests that the male identity crisis was a social creation rather than due to female influence. The men in the novel are at peril with their sexual identity and place in society because of the imposing nature of society itself.

Whilst Stephenson presents the idea that Victorian society regarded displays of sexuality as indecent, Hyde’s actions within the novel are undoubtedly of a sexual nature. When Hyde is first introduced to the novel, there is a description of him trampling a young girl underfoot, and, afterwards he pays for her family to keep quiet about the incident. This incident could insinuate that Hyde was involved in the common Victorian crime of child prostitution. Moreover, the lack of sexual desire towards females on the part of the male characters may imply that these men were concealing homosexual tendencies. The close relationship shared between Utterson and Enfield may also imply that these two men take part in some kind of sexual behaviour that would have been condemned at the time.

Freudian theory labels the character of Hyde as an illustration of the unconscious mind, known as the ‘id’. Jekyll’s ability to conform to social expectation is controlled by his ‘ego’ which suppresses his unconscious thoughts. Critic Michael Kane believes that Victorian society found the unconscious mind as detrimental. He comments that repressed desires were ‘projected upon those it considered inferior’, not only women but any lower order of society, who ‘became the unconscious of respectable society’. His ideas suggest that gender is not the significant factor which causes people to act upon their basic urges; it is the idea of levels of class which impose social rigidity. By this he means that upper class citizens are more likely to suppress any ‘improper’ desire because of their position within society. This argument is not supported by the novel, however, as Jekyll is a doctor so he is clearly educated and he is a respectable member of society who falls victim to the social oppression he faces.

The novel uses the concept of ‘the double’ in order to examine the way in which characters of either gender can be identified by more than one state, exploring Stephenson’s own claims that every human being contains some form of alter-ego. Dr Jekyll is an upstanding citizen who conceals an immoral ‘monster’ in the form of alter-ego Hyde. Throughout the novel the two are presented as entirely distinct beings and it is only in the novel’s conclusion that the reader can fully understand the two personas as one character. The use of the double personality of Jekyll and Hyde is a useful concept when considering male gender identity, as the dual nature of the individual is said to ‘destabilise male character itself’. The novel challenges the idea that ‘the male character represents unquestionably the embodied attributes of a male and a gender ideology that qualifies masculinity as ‘proper’ male character’. Despite the fact that the novel does appear to confront gender stereotypes referenced in the previous statement, the idea of masculinity is difficult to consider in the context of social influence, the idea that society constructs the way that gender identity is formed. Stephenson does not condemn men as individuals but comments on the way that the stringency of Victorian society and its expectations does not account for the duality of human nature.

Both Stoker’s Dracula and Stephenson’s Jekyll and Hyde share a similar narrative structure, introducing a monstrosity and then exploring this idea before eradicating the monster with the intention that social order is reinstated. The monster in Dracula is the Count himself and the monstrosity of the novel is the liberation of female sexual expression through his transformation of women into vampire vixens. Stephenson’s novel shows the monster as repressed desires of Jekyll which are unveiled through the vehicle of Hyde. At the end of the novel, Jekyll reveals that he knows Hyde will be no more by the time Utterson reads his final letter. At the end of Stoker’s novel, Dracula is killed and Little Quincey’s birth fulfils Van Helsing’s prophecy of ‘the children that are to be’ and restores order among the community. Critic Christopher Craft comments that the ‘monstrous’ threat in the novels is ‘contained and finally nullified by the narrative requirement that the monster be repudiated and the world of normal relations restored’. The restoration at the end of both novels suggests that gender ideals cannot be subverted entirely, despite challenging social expectation to a certain degree. Nevertheless, the conclusions of the novels are not positive which suggest that although ideals remain as established this is not necessarily the best outcome and there is an inference that change needs to be made.

Gothic novels are commonly recognised as texts which exemplify the subjugation of women yet the oppression faced by the male characters is often disregarded. Both men and women suffered equally under the repressive Victorian society which directed sexual behaviour and regarded open sexual expression as depraved. The function of the male character within the novels is not merely to criticise the patriarchal society of the 19th century but to challenge the way that social ideology was a detrimental factor to both men and women.

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