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The Authentic Fear of Monsters in Victorian Gothicism

The Authentic Fear of Monsters in Victorian Gothicism
© Photograph by Topher Adam

Monsters are most often defined as anything that is not human and that is consequently frightening. However, that definition is oddly vague and does nothing to explain the many human “monsters” within history and literature, such as people who kill for money or do terrible things for horrible reasons. Thus, this paper explores monstrosity as a form of “otherness”; whether the individual is technically human or not does not matter as much as their actions and motivations for said actions. This is most apparent in ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’1 for, although human, Mr Hyde does numerous terrible things and would be considered a monster for doing so.

In this article, monstrosity is also connected with godlessness, or a distinct amoral nature, doing things directly against what would be considered the good, “godly” thing to do, and instead of acting in favour of violence or complete lack of moral fibre. It is also possible, as in ‘Dracula,’2 that the creature is by nature unable to make a moral connection of a religious nature and is therefore labelled both godless and monstrous as a consequence of that nature. In Victorian literature, monstrosity was often equivalent to sexuality, particularly in women, thus dehumanizing anything that possessed strong primal instincts. Vampires, in particular, are often seen as sexual beings, alienating them from both humanity and God and providing a violent lesson on the consequences of lack of control. In this manner, godlessness is eerily similar to a loss of humanity, a topic this paper also continuously explores, as a way of analyzing an emotional response to violence and evil-doing, along with a sensitivity to right and wrong and a desire for knowledge and understanding. The potential for these characteristics is often considered purely human, but this article looks at examples of alien understanding and emotional responses that equate to or even surpass that of a typical human, such as in ‘The Host.’3 Loss of humanity is also often equated to a loss of self, for that which makes one human is often relatable to that which makes one a particular individual, separate and unique from any other. This loss of humanity can also be related to the idea of monstrosity reflecting a lack of control, for an ability to curb primal instincts in favour of civilized behaviour is considered distinctly human; anything less is animalistic.

The concepts of godlessness and loss of humanity function cohesively, as in many ways they are contingent on one another. Often, embodying the compassion attributed to humanity is also enabling that individual to act with a sense of godliness, and religion is — theoretically and ideally — related to compassion and empathy, characteristics that are notably considered necessary to be human. Thus, loss of humanity may be equivalent to godlessness. In this thesis, these two terms are considered separate phenomena, yet they may occasionally operate together upon the same individual, creating an even more powerful literary effect of monstrosity, thus distancing the reader from the character under discussion. For example, ‘Dracula’ is related to godlessness, yet he is also cruel and predatory, traits attributed to that which is inhuman, thus rendering him both godless and with an utter lack of humanity.

In Victorian Gothicism, the novels that use the supernatural or the uncanny “other” to create senses of dread, fear, apprehension, and unease, also use the monstrosities contained within the pages to decide the form the story will then take and, consequently, the reader’s reaction to the novel itself. Various societies and cultures in various time periods fear different things, for priorities and social expectations develop and change throughout the centuries, ensuring that people’s tastes change as well.

[clickToTweet tweet=”#AEON Monsters have remained a common attribute within #literature since their origins in local #folklore.” quote=”Monsters have remained a common attribute within literature since their origins in local folklore.”]

Gothicism specifically focuses on supernatural aspects of terror through beings like vampires, ghosts, ghouls, and other entities pulled straight from folk and fairy tales. These creatures, despite being utterly unrealistic, inspire a visceral reaction of fear and terror, perhaps because many of them may take a human shape and therefore pass themselves off as normal, something that can cause a massive amount of consternation when the creature is, in fact, far from human. The sublime effect of a being appearing to be as close to human as it is possible to be, while there is still something dangerously off about it, is what makes vampires so terrifying. Throughout the development of the literary vampire, they have become more and more human, partaking in human activities and hobbies, looking as an attractive, well-dressed human being would, yet being fundamentally different and indeed stalking humanity as a beast would stalk its prey. Vampires, in particular, are also intrinsically anti-religion, a phenomenon disturbing in Victorian culture, for society tended to equate religion with art and beauty, thus pushing toward fear and hatred of anything incapable of appreciating religion as such.

Additionally, Victorian Gothicism, in particular, relies a great deal upon the religious nature of Western society and the consequent popular reaction to such stories as those regarding vampires and products of scientific experiments. The sensational nature of vampires was most commonly contained in novels titled “penny dreadfuls” throughout much of the nineteenth-century and only began to move past that reputation with the dawning of Literary Romanticism. However, the religion of the countries in Western Europe, namely Catholicism, Protestantism, and the followers of the Church of England, still very much affected both the contents of Gothic novels and the subsequent reactions to such novels. For example, much of vampire fiction became connected with Roman Catholic methods of dispelling vampires and protecting humanity from them. This lent an air of holy mystery to novels containing such proceedings and made them almost appear as a form of worship to read them, even in more secularized societies, thus encouraging wider acceptance of vampiric sensationalism.

The counterpart to the religious aspect of Victorian nature was the popularity of scientific knowledge that increased around this point in history. Novels such as ‘Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus’4 managed to combine literary Gothicism and sensational plot points with the logic and wide acceptance of empirical knowledge through scientific pursuits. This also encouraged a sense of realism throughout such novels, increasing its believability and therefore its popularity. Secularized societies enjoyed the religious sensationalism in a different manner from those who were familiar with the Catholic symbols being represented, yet its foreign nature further dramatizes the novels themselves, and thus the monsters contained within those pages.

Modern societies are far less concerned with religion and the presence or lack thereof of God in any particular text and are more concerned with science and its potential consequences. Modern dystopias, novels that use an idealistic society with a fundamental flaw to illustrate the weaknesses of human nature, often operate off of the fear of losing one’s humanity to scientific advances that spin out of control or go too far, pushed by curious scientists pursuing more knowledge than the natural world allows for. Other dystopias explore what happens when corrupt governments gain power and then utilize it, spreading panic and brainwashing across many cultures and wiping out the existence of humanity through seemingly natural means. Both dystopian blueprints have roots in the fear of losing one’s humanity, a fear that has developed as computers have progressed in complexity and intelligence, potentially threatening what makes humanity human in the name of efficiency and progress. 1984 specifically focuses on a government that takes over its people and gradually takes away their ability to think clearly and imaginatively by taking away the functions of language that make such thought processes possible. This is an utterly subtle form of losing one’s humanity, yet it is all the more potent due to its subtlety. Language is a fundamental aspect of humanity, every culture possesses it and its loss would change the functions of the human race completely and potentially irrevocably. In contrast, novels such as ‘The Host’ look at literal alien invasions as the best form of analysis on our own human state, using the function of contrast to further our understanding of our own nature. Both approaches further the necessity of analyzing human nature to discover the source of the fear of loss. Dystopian novels often examine the self in order to discover a particular strength or weakness that will make or break the narrative. This destruction of the coherent self is necessarily broken down in dystopian societies in order to garner absolute obedience and a lack of questions. However, this breaking down of coherence also strips the subjects of their humanity.

In the spirit of exploring godlessness and loss of humanity, along with the self and the other, ‘Dracula’ and 1984 are paired in order to create a discussion about brainwashing and the act of sucking people dry, whether physically or mentally through a governmental system. This explores historical characters and their effects on fear throughout the ages in which the novels were written, looking at how history functions as an amplifier of fear and enables literature to ring true for the reader. ‘Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus’ and ‘The Host’ are comparable in the struggle of free will within the main characters. This allows them to illustrate more aspects of the problems within their respective texts, questioning both godlessness and humanity in unique ways, while exploring free will and its effects. Humanity — or the lack thereof — is questioned in the face of experimentation and alien presences. ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ and ‘Divergent’5 look at the effects that warring characteristics have on personality and the ways in which an individual functions in society, thus affecting their morality and ability to remain empathetic to those who surround them. These novels all possess common characteristics of Gothicism and dystopias, including the grotesque nature of the “monsters” in the Gothic novels and the corrupt nature of the governments in the dystopian works. These works are chosen in order to illustrate how fears of society manifest themselves in works of literature; specifically, in godless monsters and corrupt governments, respectively. Bringing them together illustrates the fragility of humanity and religion, along with the various perceptions of monstrosity within society, fictional or otherwise.

1.
Stevenson RL. Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. United Kingdom: Longmans, Green & Co.; 1886.
2.
Stoker A. Dracula. United Kingdom: Archibald Constable and Company; 1897.
3.
Meyer S. The Host. United States of America: Little, Brown & Company; 2008.
4.
Shelley MW. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. United Kingdom: Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones; 1823.
5.
Roth V. Divergent. United States of America: Katherine Tegen Books; 2011.
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