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The Fears Of The Victorinan Era English Literature Essay

2425 words (10 pages) Essay in English Literature

5/12/16 English Literature Reference this

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The social theory of degeneration was developed as a result of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, it was believed “if something can evolve, it can also devolve” (Byron, 2000: 134). The notion of evolution meant that the human race was changeable and could evolve or even degenerate or devolve. The future of human existence was now unknown and seemed uncertain. Victorians because of this unknown future held an unpromising outlook assuming that the human race was in a state of decay. Theories backing up the idea of human degeneration came from various scientific fields, such as anatomy, physiology and psychology. The prospect of the human race returning to an ape like state concerned the Victorian public and we can see the anxieties of the era present in Victorian gothic literature where the characters often transform into monstrous or primitive ape like beings. A Companion to the Victorian Novel states that the “Degeneration theory proposed that the human species was suffering from an intellectual, physical and moral decline, and becoming increasingly enfeebled through everything from syphilis, insanity, epilepsy, feminism, radicalism, crime and immigration to the stresses of modern civilization. In charting this steady decline toward racial suicide, degeneration both influenced and was influenced by a number of branches of scientific and psychological theory”(2005). Scientists from different areas contributed to this notion of there being men who were “genetically determined to be degenerate and deviant” ( Botting,1996:137). The gothic novels discussed in this essay demonstrate the anxieties surrounding these theories.

The distressing conditions at the end of the nineteenth century in urban environments such as the City of London provided perfect conditions for writing literature of terror. The Strange Case of Dr. Jeykll and Mr Hyde is one such book that profits from the circumstances and conditions at the time of its publishing. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Stevenson plays upon this innate fear of degeneration this is because ‘Stevenson gave fictional form to an emerging crisis of the late-nineteenth century: the perception that the race itself was succumbing to degenerative tendencies that threatened the very fabric of society’ (Dryden, 2003). Dryden asserts that “The fear of the ‘beast within’ was the late nineteenth century’s fear of itself. Degeneracy could lead to atavism, which must be purged in order that the race evolves beyond its animal instincts” (Dryden, 2003)

The fear of degeneration is certainly located in the character of Edward Hyde. If we examine Hyde further he seems to fit perfectly into the mould of the “criminal type” of degenerate categorized and identified by Lombroso and Galton. Laurence Talairach-Vielmas states in his review of Tracing the Criminal: The Rise of Scientific Criminology in Britain, 1860-1918 that : “Lombroso’s theory, as expounded in Criminal Man, was grounded upon the premises that 70% of criminals were biologically programmed to commit crimes. Lombroso regarded his 219 criminal portraits as evidence of an atavistic criminal type and foregrounded the relevance of anatomical or physiognomical features, such as the prominence of the jaw, the harshness of the look, or the abundance of hair. Lombroso saw atavism as the primary biological cause of criminal behaviour and paid little attention to socio-economic factors; yet he gradually included congenital illnesses and forms of dégénérescence in his criminal type, increasingly merging criminality, insanity and epilepsy, as underlined in his Crime: Its Causes and Remedies (1899).” (Talairach-Vielmas,2007) L’uomo Deliquente was published in 1875 which contained theories physically characterising the features of the criminal type. Lombrosso strongly suspected that the physical features of a person could indicate whether a person was a criminal. The Character of Edward Hyde has these inherit attributes of criminal degeneracy. These qualities can be seen not only through the horrendous and extraordinarily violent acts of crime but his physiognomy. Hyde seems to be a literal and precise characterisation of what Lombroso determined to be a criminal in his theory. Linda Dryden assets in The Modern gothic and literary doubles: Stevenson, Wilde and Wells “For Lombroseo, the criminal was physically abnormal, like Hyde, whose appearance suggests to Enfield ‘a strong feeling of deformity’ and the resemblance to ‘primitive races’ is echoed in Hyde’s ‘troglodytic’ appearance”. (Dryden, 2003).

Hyde is constantly described in a detestable nature with such words as ‘ape-like’, ‘savage’ and ‘dwarfish’. Stephen Arata observes that “Jekyll and Hyde articulates in Gothic fiction’s exaggerated tones late-Victorian anxieties concerning degeneration, devolution, and ‘criminal man'” (Arata, 1995:233). When Dr. Jekyll transforms into Hyde he therefore is degenerating to a lower form, this is highlighted and shown threw frequent comparisons to primitive forms of existence. Stephen Arata goes on to assert that “Stevenson’s first readers could easily discern the lineaments of Cesare Lombroso’s atavistic criminal. The describing words seem to flawlessly harmonize with Lombroso’s description of what he names the ‘criminal type”. The Victorian reader would certainly have been able to see the comparisons between Hyde and the ‘Criminal type and Arata goes on to further state that “Stevenson’s middle-class readers would have had as little trouble deciphering the features of the ‘abnormal and misbegotten’ Hyde, his ‘body an imprint of deformity and decay,’ as Stevenson’s middle-class characters do” (Arata, 1995:233).

The character of Edward Hyde in addition is intensely disliked by all on first acquaintance. People seem to have this intriguing aversion to Hyde, he beholds this repugnant nature. The most intriguing point is that no one can actually pinpoint the exact root of Hyde’s unpleasantness. Richard Enfield articulates, “I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why . . . he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point”, while Lanyon elaborates, “there was something abnormal and misbegotten in the very essence of the creature that now faced me something seizing, surprising, and revolting” (Stevenson:73). Utterson holds the same opinion and reports the same characteristics, he declares that Hyde was “pale and dwarfish; he gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation”(Stevenson:15). Utterson’s subsequent connection to this uncanny aura, detestable nature and indescribability in relation to Hyde’s appearance shows Hyde as an exemplar of Lombroseo and Galton theories of criminal atavism. Hyde’s repulsive and vile appearance is instinctively associated with delinquency and criminality. Hyde seems to radiate this evil, repugnant aura, people who come into contact with him seem to adopt this instant loathing to him. Utterson illiterates this aura of repulsiveness in the following extract: “the radiance of a foul soul transpires through, and transfigures its clay content” (Stevenson: 15). Hyde comes across as deformed yet he lacks the distinct physical features of an inherent deformity. Utterson finds describing Edward Hyde’s deformity and evil aura meticulously hard, he states that” hard all these points were against; but not all these together could explain the hitherto unknown disgust, loathing, and fear with which Mr. Utterson regarded him”(Stevenson:15-16). The specific qualities and features that account for his horrid appearance of deformity seem to remain unknown and evade comprehension. The Victorians held this fear of the unknown and Hyde certainly embodies the uncanny which was a concept and theory developed by Sigmund Freud. The uncanny is where something can be familiar yet foreign at the same time leading to uneasiness.

The other indicator of Hyde’s criminal degeneracy is an obvious one; it is his atavistic modes of conduct. The climax of the novel is the murder of Sir Danvers Carew in such a ferociously violent nature by Hyde. The crime is depicted in a horrific nature, in the following extract it is told that “Mr. Hyde broke out of all bounds, and clubbed to the earth. And next moment, with apelike fury, he was trampling his victim under foot, hailing down a storm of blows, under which the bones were audibly shattered and the body jumped upon the roadway” (Stevenson, p27). Hyde’s repulsive appearance and volatile actions show that Stevenson has played on what Pick ascertains as the Victorian fears and anxieties of “urban degeneration”.

The plot of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde can be compared to that of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Both novels share a characteristic gothic plot where there is this degeneration from higher to lower state. The novels expose the degeneration of the respectable middle class to a more primitive and bestial state. The middle class at the time witnessed the traditional values and family structures under great pressure as Britain observed a “loosening of moral, aesthetic and sexual codes associated with fin de siècle decadence”. This in turn is echoed and depicted in the literature of the time. The Victorian Gothic depicted members of the middle classes as the new victims of corruption and decay.For instance Dr Jekyll in the strange case transforms into this primitive form after taking a concoction while Dorian Gray similarity degenerates to a lower form of existence. The moral degeneration of Dorian Gray is shown through the portraits gradual decay, it is stated that “the face painted on the canvas could grow bestial, sodden, and unclean” (Wilde: 238). The further Dorian corrupts the more bestial the picture becomes it is “the most magical of mirrors,” (Wilde: 227). In Late Victorian Gothic Tales by Robert Luckhurst it is commented that “The picture that Dorian Gray hides in his house is not only a metaphor of moral corruption, but is a precise record of physical degenerative decay”. (Luckhurst, 2000)The visible changes that show the corruption of Dorian’s soul draw on Victorian fears of human degeneration and cultural decay: “But here was a visible symbol of the degradation of sin. Here was an ever-present sign of the ruin men brought upon their souls.” (Wilde: 78). However Dorian’s own appearance is unaffected and therefore his atavistic nature could not be deciphered threw physiognomy according to Victorian theory which in turn played on Victorian fears.

Dorian Gray’s submersion in the Victorian underworld of sexual liberation, criminality and opium is portrayed in a similar nature to Edward Hyde’s. Wilde fuses the imagery of the upper class and lower class by having the allegedly respectable Dorian visit the poor and deprived districts of London. ‘He remembered wandering through dimly-lit streets with gaunt black-shadowed archways and evil-looking houses. Women with hoarse voices and harsh laughter had called after him. Drunkards had reeled by cursing, and chattering to themselves like monstrous apes. He had seen grotesque children huddled upon doorsteps, and had heard shrieks and oaths from gloomy courts” (Wilde: 114 ). In the previous extract the working classes are depicted as ape like beings and therefore Dorian’s involvement with this sphere highlights Dorian as primitive. Lord Henry asserts that “crime belongs exclusively to the lower orders. I should fancy that crime was to them what art is to us, simply a method of procuring extraordinary sensations” (Wilde: 152). This previous extract not only shows the duality of Dorian’s nature as both a criminal and a respectable middle-class gentleman but it also illustrates the criminality of not only the lower classes. At this time characteristics of the criminal type were associated in the late-Victorian mind with the lower class, but Jekyll and Hyde and Dorian Gray both challenge that idea. For instance Stephen Arata asserts about Jekyll and Hyde that ‘While his impulsiveness and savagery, his violent temper, and his appearance all mark Hyde as lower class and atavistic, his vices are clearly those of a monied gentleman.’ (Arata, 1995) Mans dual nature is a prevalent theme in Stevenson’s and Wilde’s masterpieces. This idea of people having a divided self was equally used in the Gothic novels and was a product of theory’s such as the theory of social repression. This theory believed that the restricting moral codes of the bourgeoisie produced the “divided and repressing lifestyles of the middle-classes, respectable by day and pleasure-seeking by night” (Botting,1996: 136).

Dorian can be noted as digressing from the higher class to the lower class sphere. Joseph Bristow remarks that “Dorian wears a fine aristocratic face but possesses what may be referred to as a working-class (debased, gross, indecent) body, as he moves across and between different echelons of society” (Bristow,1992: 60). Dorian’s character is much like that of Jekyll/Hyde, both are divided between upper and lower classes and good and evil. The strange case and Dorian Gray both demonstrate the vulnerability of the middle class to degeneration. Linda Dryden states in The Modern Gothic and Literary Doubles that’The susceptibility of the upper class to moral decay was the theme of Degeneration’ (Dryden 2003). Theories of the time did not just focus on the lower class for instance “Nordau took pains to insist that the degenerate population ‘consists chiefly of rich educated people’ who, with too much time and means at their disposal, succumb to decadence and depravity” (Arata 1996). The Victorian Gothic novel certainly depicted members of the middle classes as the new victims of corruption and decay (Byron, 2000: 137). Clare Clarke illiterates that ‘Both Edward Hyde, and indeed Dorian Gray, then, are figures that embody a bourgeois readership’s worst fears not only about the atavistic and marauding poor but also of the decadent and immoral upper classes.’ (Clarke, 2005)

Both the novels touched upon in this essay draw their power from fears and anxieties in Britain at the end of the 19th century in regards to the degeneration discourse. Problems inbuilt in human nature were believed to result in the regression to primitive forms and split personalities. Dorian’s corruption and decay must have been particularly alarming and distressing to the Victorian public because of his respectable middle class status, amongst the fact his physiognomy lacked the inherent signs of degeneracy and decay. Mr Hyde on the other hands appearance and uncanny nature give away his atavistic modes of conduct and his degeneracy although still alarming. This Victorian fear of degeneracy can be seen in both novels mainly focusing on the immoral higher classes and there degenerative tendencies. New theories caused this unease and tension in Victorian minds about the stability of human nature. The fact the Victorian era was that of much change, industrialization and scientific development just helped build uncertainty about the future of the human race. Crime rates were high, overpopulation in cities was rife and poverty was a huge problem just adding to theories surrounding decay and degeneracy. The mark of the era can be seen in the novels discussed toying with the fears and anxieties of the time.

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