Controversial, Degenerate Suicides in Late-Victorian Gothic Fiction

Danielle Benyon-Payne

Danielle Benyon-Payne

Stephen Arata (1996) examines the effect of the late-Victorian era’s perceived decline on late-nineteenth-century fiction, underlining the multiplicity of readings that degeneration theory allows due to the difficulty in defining the term.

The various disciplines upon which degeneration encroached ranged from biology, criminology, psychology and art. Likewise, scholars identify the late-nineteenth-century Gothic link with fears of a dangerous lower-class “race” (Ledger and Luckhurst 2000); the relocation of the era’s Gothic fiction to urban environments (Dryden 2003); the loss of stability of the human identity and the emergence of the “abhuman” (Hurley 1996); or the connection between immorality, aestheticism and degeneration (Dawson 2007).

However, contemporary research does not address the incidences of suicide in late-Victorian Gothic fiction, nor does it acknowledge the emergence of suicide as a Gothic trope. Chapter one discussed the popular nineteenth-century consideration of suicide as a symptom of degeneration and thus a necessary outcome.

The suicides in the novels discussed below give an insight into the era’s debates and attitudes towards the phenomenon of suicide and degeneration by exploring the representation of some late-nineteenth-century Gothic characters and the possible link between these degenerate figures and their suicides.

Arata (1996) discusses the similarities between Hyde and the late-nineteenth-century perception of lower-class degenerates, likening the descriptions of Hyde to Cesare Lombroso’s atavistic criminal man. Julia Reid (2006) outlines Stevenson’s interests in evolution, inheritance and the “savagery” of man’s ancestors. Neither, however, examines Jekyll’s suicide, despite suicide becoming increasingly integrated into degeneration theory. This section investigates whether Jekyll/Hyde is representative of a late-nineteenth-century degenerate. By determining Stevenson’s engagement with wider nineteenth-century theories, I begin to unravel the significance of Jekyll/Hyde’s suicide.

Henry Maudsley believed that the moral sense, which encompassed such faculties as social instincts, will and reason, elevated humans to a position above that of the animals and that without the moral sense: “[man is] stripped of all his essential human qualities and degraded almost to his bare animal instincts” (Maudsley 1867b, 115-16).2 The Gothicism of his statement can be seen in traditional Gothic novels such as ‘The Monk’, in which Ambrosio appears to lose all sense of moral reason which culminates in the animalistic hunt of his “prey” Antonia, his “wild” and savage murder after which he is described as “a monster of cruelty, lust and ingratitude”.

His “good” instincts had been overthrown by his “base” ones (Lewis 1796, 384-85; 65). In his psychiatry, Maudsley alleged that instinctive impulses were transmitted through inheritance, and that criminals and the insane were “as much manufactured …as are steam trains and calico-printing machines” (Maudsley 1874a, 30).

His determinism excludes the possibility of free-will and he believed that degenerate individuals “cannot …regenerate” (Maudsley 1884-5, 5) and that degeneration was a “transformation …into an …abnormal kind” (Maudsley 1884, 241). Without the alleged higher human faculties, an individual would supposedly irreversibly function as primitively as his “brute” ancestor (Maudsley 1870, 52).

With reference to Gothic convention, Rafter shows that, just as the Gothic deconstructs the familiar and the good, “criminal anthropology turned the criminal into a creature utterly different from normal man” (Rafter 2010, 282). The science of the era, therefore, was often moulded by the sensationalism of the Gothic genre and its obsession with deviation and sin, cruelty and murder. In turn, this then offered a social context in which the Gothic resurgence could take place. For example, similarities between Maudsley’s view and Jekyll and Hyde are evident. Jekyll’s moral sense is eradicated by his “draught” which strips away his “respectability” and allows him to “spring headlong into a sea of liberty” (Stevenson 1886, 56). The upper-class doctor becomes his hidden “other”, a physical manifestation of primitive instincts and desires which then undermine the “higher” human faculties.

Stevenson’s interest in evolution developed while studying at Edinburgh University. During this period Thomas Huxley delivered “the most publicised event of 1868” (Bibby 1972, 63) in Edinburgh, a lecture entitled ‘On the Physical Basis of Life’. Huxley claimed that all life descends from protoplasmic substance.

In 1863, Huxley had claimed that humans were related to the ape: “it is quite certain that the ape which most nearly approaches man.. is either the Chimpanzee or the Gorilla” (Huxley 1863, 86).

Huxley’s work on the human relationship to the ape preceded Darwin’s own ‘The Descent of Man’ (1871) in which Darwin underlined the likelihood that man had descended along with other species from a common ancestor and that man himself had descended from the ape. Absorbing these standpoints, which were increasingly common by the latter part of the century, Stevenson’s Hyde resembles an ape; he is “troglodytic”, “ape-like” and appears “like a monkey” (Stevenson 1886, 16, 20, 39).

Arata says that the middle and upper classes adopted the term “degeneration” to describe deviances within the lower classes but now found the concept turned upon themselves as their own vulnerability was exposed (Arata 1996, 34). Through Hyde, Stevenson links the beast and the degenerate and postulates the existence of both within the upper class (Jekyll’s world).

Stevenson’s interest in evolutionary discourse can be seen in some of his other texts both fiction and non-fiction. In ‘The Manse’ (1887) Stevenson considers the relationship between himself, his grandfather, and their ancestry: “What sleeper in green treetops …concludes my pedigree? Probably arboreal in his habits …in him [his grandfather] …there was an aboriginal frisking of the blood that was not his; tree-top memories, like undeveloped negatives, lay dormant in his mind (Stevenson 1887b, 119).”

Stevenson acknowledges a connection between humans and animals, and explores the idea that beneath “civilised” man a primitive nature lies “dormant”. Similarly, in ‘Pastoral’, Stevenson mused: “A certain low-browed, hairy gentleman …he is often described as Probably Arboreal …our civilised nerves still tingle with his rude terrors and pleasures; and to that which would have moved our common ancestor, all must obediently thrill” (Stevenson 1887a, 104).

Stevenson describes his grandfather’s memories as infused with images of an arboreal life, connecting humans and animals through his description of the ancestral tree of life and the primitive blood coursing through all “civilised” men. Beneath the “civilised” exterior of “man” lies the barely-hidden potential for raging desires and “pleasures” which would render humankind no less base and instinctual than the ape from whence they came. The similarities between ‘The Manse’, ‘Pastoral’ and ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ are evident: “[Jekyll] thought of Hyde, for all his energy of life, as of something not only hellish but inorganic …the slime of the pit seemed to utter cries and voices …the amorphous dust gesticulated and sinned …what was dead, and had no shape, should usurp the offices of life” (Stevenson 1886, 65).

The “dormant” Hyde had previously been without physical form but could now “usurp” the “civilised” Jekyll. Hyde represents Jekyll’s predisposition to sin which was strong enough to “usurp” the moral “offices” of life. Arata notes that the similarities between Hyde and Cesare Lombroso’s Gothic “born criminal” (Lombroso 1876) are behaviourally and physiologically evident (Arata 1996, 34). Lombroso believed that the degenerate was biologically determined, an idea that is evident in Jekyll and Hyde through Jekyll’s admission that Hyde had always existed within him. Arata claims that Lombroso’s work would have been instantly recognisable to Stevenson’s readership.

Donald Lawler says the same: “Lombroso’s basic ideas had gained currency by the 1880s through…evolutionary psychologists such as Stevenson’s friend James Sully.” Referring to the relationship with Sully, Lawler suggests that Stevenson would himself have had access to ideas on criminal anthropology.

Lombroso alleged that the criminal acted on impulse, motivated by their bestial roots and an instinct to kill. These degenerates resembled “savages”, remaining morally and physically undeveloped due to an arrested evolution (Lombroso 1876, 91). Likewise, Hyde is described throughout the story as “pale and dwarfish” and “something hardly human” (Stevenson 1886, 15).

Lombroso concluded that a degenerate was “an atavistic being who reproduces in his person the ferocious instincts of primitive humanity and the inferior animals” (Lombroso 1876, introduction).

This nature was, says Lombroso, a direct result of a biologically-determined inheritance: “the most horrendous and inhuman crimes have a biological, atavistic origin in those animalistic instincts” (Lombroso 1876, 91). Maudsley had previously stated: “no doubt such animal traits [in humans] are marks of extreme human degeneracy” (Maudsley 1870, 51).

These “animal marks” were perceived to be transmitted through inheritance. In 1878, Stevenson and Richard Proctor published articles in the same issue of Cornhill Magazine. ‘Hereditary Traits’ discussed the concept of the inheritance of vices and biological determinism of criminal or immoral behaviour: “Hereditary predisposition to theft, murder, and suicide, has been demonstrated in several cases …If a man finds within himself an inherent tendency towards some sin, which yet he utterly detests, insomuch that while the spirit is willing the flesh is weak, or perchance utterly powerless …his own life [is] a struggle too painful and too hopeless to be handed down to others …the question has been asked, ‘Why should we act otherwise with beings who, if human in form, are worse than wild beasts?” (Proctor 1878, 430-1).

Proctor felt that if an individual is predisposed to sin then he should be prevented from transmitting this trait. Jekyll also “found within himself” the tendency to sin: his instincts are concealed by an upper-class desire to be “distinguished” but ultimately he is powerless against his hidden predispositions (Stevenson 1886, 52).

The concern that a man’s bestial instincts could govern his behaviour led to a debate about the treatment of criminals. Proctor continued: “The demonstrated fact that a thief or murderer has inherited his unpleasant tendency should be a raison du plus for preventing the tendency from being transmitted any farther. In stamping out the hereditary ruffian or rascal …we not only get rid of the ‘grown serpent’, but of the worm which ‘hath nature that in time would venom breed” (Proctor 1878, 431).

Removing the individual from society was, to Proctor, the only way to prevent the spread of this propensity to violence. He believed that suicide could be a predetermined hereditary action. Lombroso wrote that “[suicide] demonstrates the irresistible violence of the passions that drive criminals” (Lombroso 1876, 103). He feared that if an individual was capable of violence against himself, then he could be capable of violence against others. Suicide thus became a means of “stamping out” the degenerate.

Hyde is portrayed as a violent degenerate: while murdering Sir Danvers Carew, “Hyde broke out of all bounds and clubbed Carew…next moment, with ape-like fury, he was trampling his victim under foot, haling down a storm of blows, under which the bones were audibly shattered” (Stevenson 1886, 20).

The savagery of this act corresponds with Lombroso’s image of the atavistic criminal. In his typical Gothic style, Lombroso wrote that the degenerate felt “the irresponsible craving of evil for its own sake, the desire not only to extinguish life in the victim but to mutilate the corpse, tear its flesh and drink its blood” (Lombroso 1876, introduction).

Lombroso completely dehumanised his villain, creating the monster so revered in the Gothic traditions of the era, such as the “savage, inhuman monster” of Manfred (Walpole 1764, 108). Like Lombroso’s degenerates, Hyde, too, is unprovoked in his murderous antics and “drink[s] pleasure with bestial avidity from any degree of torture to another” (Stevenson 1886, 57). Jekyll’s potion did not create Hyde; it merely provided a means for this character to emerge from where he lay dormant.

Jekyll fights a “perennial war” (Stevenson 1886, 52) between his two personas but Jekyll is ultimately unable to refrain from temptation — to quote Proctor, his “flesh is weak”. Hyde’s savagery becomes progressively worse and his actions “monstrous” (Stevenson 1886, 57). Jekyll is consequently unable to control Hyde’s usurpation and the degenerate character gains the upper hand: “I had gone to bed Henry Jekyll, I had awakened Edward Hyde” (Stevenson 1886, 58). Attempting to regain control, Jekyll uses Hyde’s fear of death to threaten suicide (Stevenson 1886, 65).

However, it is not Jekyll but Hyde who commits that final act. Jekyll writes that he only has enough draught left to remain Jekyll for a short time and after that Hyde will resume control forever. He wonders how Hyde will react when left to face the forthcoming “doom” alone: “will Hyde die upon the scaffold? Or will he find the courage to release himself at the last moment? …what is to follow concerns another than myself” (Stevenson 1886, 66).

When Utterson breaks down the study door, he looks upon the “body of a self-destroyer” — Edward Hyde (Stevenson 1886, 41). Jekyll’s prediction was therefore correct; Hyde has “release[d]” himself.

Stevenson portrays suicide as the appropriate means of removing the uncontrollable and progressively evil Hyde from society. Jekyll had been unable to control his degenerate nature; this corresponds with the contemporary debate about suicide being a symptom of uncontrollable degeneracy — alongside murder and immorality — and thus necessary.

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