The Animal Monster in Late Victorian Gothic Fiction

The Animal Monster in Late Victorian Gothic Fiction
© Photograph by Ivascu Cristina

Readers of late Victorian gothic fiction have long recognised the animality of many of the monstrous figures that people its pages, but the relationship between animal and monster that such recognition calls into question has remained curiously under-theorised. Under rubrics as varied as “degeneration”, “racial panic”, “gender inversion” and “polymorphous perversity”, the gothic sensibility at the end of the nineteenth-century has plausibly been ascribed to fears inspired by mass movements and class mobility, to cultural anxieties concerning Britain’s others at a time of increased imperial expansion in the face of global economic recession or, alternatively, to the proliferation of discourses on sexuality that both resist and account for mechanisms of social normativity. Yet, the phenomenon of the gothic has seldom been studied in the context of an equally expansive discourse on the social, philosophical and scientific status of the animal that pervaded late Victorian England. The monsters’ animality, in existing accounts, is acknowledged only to be dismissed as a mark of their radical alterity.

This is a curious occlusion, not least because the monstrosity of Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, and even Dorian Gray, to name only the most famous monsters in late Victorian gothic, cannot be reductively inscribed within a mythic or supernatural order of representation. Indeed, these figures make themselves known or show themselves (“se montrer,” in French, the etymological root for the English “monster”, from “monstrum,” the Latin for portent) as anomalous or aberrant or precisely “as” monstrous within the realist worldview that would reject them on both epistemological and ontological grounds. These monsters are monstrous only to the extent that they violate the protocols and conventions that sustain the mimetic logic of the literary ecology they inhabit, which must accordingly assert its priority by rejecting that which falls outside its purview. Accordingly, the familiar if no less frightening figure of the animal comes to stand in as a proxy for the human other and thus as a representational vehicle for the creaturely pathos we tend to associate with the figure of the monster in late Victorian gothic. The monsters’ animality, in other words, functions as a supplementary figure for their unrepresentability.

Late Victorian gothic monsters, moreover, typically do not show themselves as fully formed monsters when they make their entry into the fictional worlds that resist them but rather become monstrous through transformative processes that give form and impulse to their narrative development. These procedures establish a link with the rich literary tradition of human/animal metamorphoses that stretches at least as far back as Publius Ovidius Naso. Yet, in the fictional context of late Victorian gothic, the processes by which the monster becomes a monster have now to be understood in the context of Darwinian evolution and its dynamics of random mutation and sexual selection. Science, rather than myth or superstition, lends plausibility to the representation of the monster even when traditional science is itself misrepresented and misused in these works. Scientific discourse in these texts informs experiments that are capable of producing (Jekyll) as well as destroying (Van Helsing) monstrous creatures. Late Victorian gothic scientists are in some sense “mad” doctors — they have outsized ambitions, they are often asocial beings and, like Herbert George Wells’ Dr Moreau, they are at times even “monstrous” themselves; but at the same time, they are scientists and, as such, they lend a degree of legitimacy and realism to otherwise far-fetched premises and implausible outcomes. In this case, the recourse to the animal as a figure for the realistic representation of the monster’s monstrosity responds to a rhetorical logic of substitution for which science merely provides thematic ballast.

The critical occlusion of the animality of the monster in late Victorian gothic, as I hope to show in what follows, masks a prior occlusion occurring at the very site of its monstrosity: the animality of the human. The monster, I will argue, comes to occupy that indeterminate zone or border created between the human and the animal through what Giorgio Agamben has called the “anthropological machine”: that discursive apparatus that, operating within different domains of knowledge and culture (philosophy, science, literature, politics etc.), isolates the non-human within the human and thereby animalises the human. This zone or border, in urgent need of redefinition as culture, begins to assimilate Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in the late nineteenth-century, can be profitably aligned with the space occupied by what Eugene Thacker has called the “creature”, a figure that can be “positioned somewhere between animals and monsters, the normal and the pathological, the well-formed and the deformed”, creature traced by transcendental forms of thought. The creaturely, in this reading, would be that human figure whose humanity becomes disfigured by a form of political violence that targets the bare, biological bases of life. This form of effacement corresponds to Eric L. Santner’s description of the creaturely as an “excess” of humanity, yet differs from it in that the monster in late Victorian gothic retains as an index of its monstrosity an explicit animal reference whose allegorical operations have been evacuated of theological determination. Indeed, the monster in late Victorian gothic belongs to a historical conjuncture in which the animal comes to stand in for a radical form of alterity that bears the marks of political exception.

To be sure, the border dividing human and the animal was a highly contested discursive site throughout the nineteenth-century. As Ivan Kreilkamp has persuasively shown, the publication of Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ in 1859 — the event through which the discourse on animals in late Victorian culture is typically routed — provides only one narrative strand in a complex cultural, scientific and political history of human/animal relations that informs and indeed underwrites the Victorian period as a whole. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, for instance, which was founded in 1824, propagated through its annual reports lurid descriptions of animal suffering and mistreatment that, according to Ivan Kreilkamp, triggered what he calls “mimetic sympathy”, a modality of affect that became associated with the moral purposes of reading itself. But the discourse on animal cruelty did not in fact trouble the distinction between humans and animals; it merely displaced it, creating in its stead a subcategory of animals that were vested with human subjectivity. Dogs, cats and horses became the favoured emblems of an enlightened attitude towards animals that not only acknowledged their “wants” and “desires”, but also willingly granted political rights to non-humans so as to curtail their suffering, the privileged occasion, from Jeremy Bentham on, for the display of powerful affect. In Anna Sewell’s extraordinarily popular novel ‘Black Beauty’ (1877), to give only one example, animal suffering is narrated from the perspective of a horse who, having been granted sentience, reason and voice, shows us that human cruelty is also a gross misunderstanding of animals’ own desires to be “good” human companions.

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