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The Other Side of the Gothic; Gothic Fiction as a Mirror of the Unspoken
October is the month of monsters. Each year around the time of Halloween we are practically bombed with horror films containing various magical creatures, beings, and monsters. Vampires lurking around the dark alleys of the city streets, skeletons waltzing to the tunes of Camille Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre, and zombies craving for a bite of human flesh, are just some examples of elements popularly associated with the monstrous aesthetics of Halloween, and early November.
Apart from their popularity during the time of Halloween, monstrous beings have been inhabiting fictional worlds of various writers ever since the beginning of time. Their popularity experienced a peak during the nineteenth century. Bram Stoker’s Gothic horror novel Dracula (1897) introduced the iconic image of the vampire Count Dracula in Victorian England. Robert Louise Stevenson’s gothic novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) introduces the theme of the doppelgänger, which investigates the dual nature of men. Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) is an even earlier example of a novel inspired by Gothic imagery, the supernatural, and the uncanny duality of human nature.
Although the above-mentioned pieces were published during the heyday of Gothic fiction in England, the monstrous imagery interconnecting these novellas and novels is still omnipresent in popular cultural products of our own reality, as adaptations of pieces of Gothic fiction are released at least once every year. But what exactly attracts so many writers to these monstrous beings? A possible answer lies in these creatures’ possibility to embody human anxieties and fears, allowing writers, at the same time, to creatively construct memorable symbols of, for instance, the dark side of the human mind, or uncontrollable lust.
Dracula: A Container of Victorian Anxieties of Migration and Crime
In his article on Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), Greg Buzwell interprets the vampire as an incredibly complex and symbolism-leaden figure: “On the one hand a repellent blood-sucking creature crawling from the grave, and, on the other, a strangely alluring representation of glamour and potent sexuality” (1). In his view, the frequent incorporation of vampires in pieces of Gothic literature (another example is John William Polidori’s 1819 piece The Vampyre) was meant to reflect the fears that “haunted the Victorian fin de siècle” (1). Buzwell suggests that Count Dracula’s intrusion into London, his ability to lurk throughout its streets unnoticeably, as well as the numerous murders committed by either him or his entourage of newly-created vampires, were meant to “play upon late-Victorian fears of untrammelled migration”, the increased levels of crime, and the rise of ghetto communities (1). At the same time, the Gothic imagery of the book aimed to subtly mirror the hysterical atmosphere in London of Stoker’s time, ignited by the murders of the notorious Jack the Ripper in 1888 (1).
The Double Nature of Monsters and Men
Another re-occurring theme in Gothic fiction is that of the dual nature of men. Robert Louise Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) are probably the most well-known literary pieces playing with the theme of duality.
In Buzwell’s interpretation, Gothic fiction frequently examines the idea of “the sinister alter ego or double”, so as to reflect not only the dual nature of mankind, but also that of the society as a whole. In this sense, Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, according to Buzwell, was an attempt to reflect the duality of London.
Throughout the story, respectability is doubled with degradation; abandon with restraint; honesty with duplicity. Even London itself has a dual nature, with its respectable streets existing side-by-side with areas notorious for their squalor and violence. (2)
Apart from the mischievously dual nature of London and the human soul, Stevenson’s creature, together with Stoker’s Dracula, are figures which channel Victorian scepticism towards science, and symbolise degradation. While Stevenson’s Jekyll/Hyde reflects scepticism towards medicine embodied in the figure of the monstrous and barbaric Hyde who is the result of a Victorian scientist’s experiment, Dracula’s ability to transform into the shape of a wolf, or a bat, reflects the Darwinian discourse of that time, as well as the nightmarish biological possibilities of evolution (2).
Wilde’s Dorian Gray also experiments with the theme of duality, although in an aesthetically different manner. Dorian Gray’s double life of a simultaneous angel and a devil becomes manifest in Dorian’s portrait, made by the deeply moral painter Basil Hallward, which, as the story of the novel unfolds, gradually transforms into an uncanny image of Dorian deprived of humanity and degenerated through sin. As Buzwell writes, the idea of a double life is a central theme in Wilde’s novel, and reflects Victorian views on accepted social behaviour (2).
Although some of the most memorable pieces of Gothic fiction have been published almost two centuries ago, it is safe to say that the themes and ideas reflected in them are still very much present in cultural products of our every-day lives. Films, TV series, and books, like The Vampire Diaries (2009-2017) and its spin-off The Originals (2013-2018), Penny Dreadful (2014-2016), or The Cured (2018), regularly incorporate supernatural elements and creatures which pique our interest and curiously attract us with their monstrous aesthetics.
It may very well be that the attraction of such creatures stems primarily from their ability to incorporate the uncanny nature of human reality, and visually communicate ideas which are usually left unspoken, or invisible, just like Stoker’s Dracula reflects Victorians’ fears of the increasing crime rate of London, and Stevenson’s dual persona of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde reflects the peculiar duality of human nature.
1. Buzwell, Greg. “Dracula: Vampires, Perversity, and Victorian Anxieties.” The British Library; Discovering Literature: Romantics & Victorians, 15 May, 2014, https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/dracula. Accessed 21 October, 2018.
2. Buzwell, Greg. “‘Man Is Not Truly One, but Truly Two’: Duality in Robert Louise Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” The British Library; Discovering Literature: Romantics & Victorians, 15 May, 2014, https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/duality-in-robert-louis-stevensons-strange-case-of-dr-jekyll-and-mr-hyde. Accessed 21 October, 2018.
3. Buzwell, Greg. “The Picture of Dorian Gray: Art, Ethics, and the Artist.” The British Library; Discovering Literature: Romantics & Victorians, 15 May, 2014, https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/the-picture-of-dorian-gray-art-ethics-and-the-artist. Accessed 21 October, 2018.