Overview Of Masculinity In Victorian Gothic Novels English Literature Essay
The oppressive nature of Victorian society is highlighted in both Robert Louis Stephenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Bram Stoker’s Dracula and is used in the novels as a vehicle by which to explore masculinity. The oppressive nature of the society in which the novels are set is evidently the principal cause of anxiety over sexuality and how people presented themselves to others. In Stephenson’s novel, masculinity is governed by the idea of self discipline, as the protagonist Jekyll will not allow himself to ruin his reputation in submitting to his corrupt alter ego. Similarly, Stoker’s Dracula introduces the idea of masculinity as being threatened by an outside force, namely the sexual power that the female characters attain, resulting in a danger to patriarchal control. Although Victorian ideology is not overtly challenged in the novels, as there is a clear condemnation of any form of self liberation, the way in which the masculine functions within the texts reveals a somewhat radical gender ideology, contesting Victorian expectation in many ways.
Whilst many critical works comment on oppression faced by the female within Victorian society, the same subjugation confronting the male is commonly overlooked. The disempowerment of the female is well documented in terms of criticism, yet critics often neglect the fact that the male suffers in the context of the same social rigidity. George Landow comments that the ‘feminist analysis of the Gothic focuses on the concern of the stereotyping of the female characters according to male fantasy’, yet Stoker’s Dracula challenges this theory in subverting stereotypical female characters who are weak and non sexual, permitting women a degree of power by means of sexual liberation. The novel challenges Landow’s theory by demonstrating masculine subjugation as a consequence of social control, showing that both men and women under marginalisation. Cyndy Hendershot contests ideology of the time as she argues that Victorian masculinity is an ambiguous concept as the stereotypes which are presented are rarely queried. Critic Collini recognises the ambiguity of Victorian masculinity, commenting that there appears to be a general concurrence of gender ideals where the ‘accepted single, rigid idea’ of Victorian masculinity is unquestioned. He suggests that the reason why the Victorian male is stereotypically heterosexual is because there is an assumption of heterosexuality as the standard in terms of sexual preference. As a result, it seems that the novels work to challenge accepted roles of gender and sexuality within the Victorian period.
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. 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. 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, establishes 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.
Within Victorian society and, consequently, the society presented in Stephenson’s novel, one of the fundamental concerns was the idea of upholding a respectable reputation. Dr Jekyll’s major concern is the way in which others perceive him and he is careful to maintain an honourable 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. Alongside this concern lay an anxiety over sexuality and how to express and, in turn, suppress, sexual desires. 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 crushing a young girl under him, and, afterwards he pays for her family to keep the incident hushed. This incident could insinuate that Hyde was involved in the common Victorian crime of child prostitution or it may imply that Hyde has raped the young girl, suggesting the catastrophic consequences of social control causing people to take part in criminal acts as a means of release. Moreover, the lack of sexual desire towards females on the part of the male characters may imply that these men were concealing homosexual tendencies. Utterson and Enfield’s close relationship, where they spend many hours of time alone together on walks, may also imply that these two men take part in some kind of illicit sexual behaviour. 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. 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.
One of the significant themes within Stoker’s novel is the concern surrounding displays of sexuality. Female sexual expression is threatening to the male as they cannot control their imaginations as they take pleasure in what they witness. It is the idea of being out of control which incites anxiety among the men, who are conscious that their actions form their reputations. 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. On his work on feminist theory, 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 achieve a powerful status. The three females who become sexualised are noticeably 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 are forced to adopt the role of the male in order to acquire any form of power. Their teeth are phallic symbols, clearly representing the penetration of their prey. 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 gender.
Stoker depicts Victorian horror at the thought of a sexually liberated female in his description of Harker’s fear at facing the vampires. His confusion surrounding the kiss of the vampire, where he feels both ‘longing’ desire 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 uncertainty as to whether he was dreaming these visions of the women suggest that he will not allow himself to consider any sexual desire as a genuine or real and he will not confront his feelings. He decides that if the vampires are more than just apparitions then they will drink his blood and weaken him. However, he is still afraid of these vampires if they are merely visions as they still threaten to drain him of semen, as they are providing him with sexual gratification, as he lies in ‘languorous ecstasy’. Harker’s vulnerability as a male is revealed when he is described as being both disgusted 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, 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.
Stoker’s Dracula investigates the possibility of ‘fluidity’ within gender roles. When Lucy transforms into a ‘voluptuous’ vampire, any potential suitor is warned off as they fear a threat 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 order to reinstate social order. The men are fearful that Mina will also be transformed and therefore they insist upon controlling female sexual behaviour in order that the women do not become disparaged socially. The men’s fears over the women changing into sexualised beings are entirely selfish as they feel unsafe with any attack on social order. Dracula scorns 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 vampires, where their sexual desires are uncontained and liberated, leaves men exposed and will ultimately destroy patriarchy within society. The function of the vampire in the novel can be considered as a symbol of sexual oppression. The male characters in Dracula all struggle 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 support 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.
Stoker uses Freudian theory in his novel in order to examine sexuality in the Victorian period without appearing explicitly 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 an impulse to destroy the living. The characters of Lucy and Mina are presented as being wholly dutiful 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 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 to use men for her own advantage and fulfil her sexual desires.
Freudian theory is also explored in Jekyll and Hyde as the character of Hyde is labelled 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 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’ yet this is interaction between men and women is a non sexual, isolate incidence. 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 consequence of social control 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. 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 human urges. This representation seems to emulate Victorian society’s deep rooted fascination with emancipation from social imprisonment.
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 the theme of the monstrous as a threat to social order. The monstrosity within Dracula is the concept 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 optimistic which suggests that, although ideals remain as established, these standards can be detrimental to all. The texts conclude with a common inference that Victorian gender ideology needed to be revolutionised.
Often, the way in which the novels challenge oppressive Victorian society is overlooked in favour of an 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. In a similar way Stephenson uses Jekyll and Hyde to present the idea that the repressive Victorian society often pushed people to the limits of their own control, causing irrepressible urges to take over. Moreover, the novel affirms the way in which both men and women were susceptible to the anxieties surrounding sexuality because of the society in which they lived.
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