From a sociocultural perspective in the Victorian age, there was anxiety surrounding “the rising” of the middle class. Sally Ledger and Roger Luckhurst describe this time as the “emergence, in their modern configuration, of the forms and definitions of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture” (14). David Damrosch and Kevin J. H Dettmar further this idea in The Longman Anthology by noting that “it was the burgeoning middle class… that formed the largest audience for new prose and poetry and produced the authors to meet an increasing demand for books that edify, instruct, and entertain” (1066). However, new books were still a “luxury” during the Victorian era, and “writers had to censor their content to meet the prim standards of ‘circulating library morality’” (D&D 1066, 1067). Thus, it could be argued that the middle class, while becoming more and more literate, was subject to great (and often dishonest) influence. These dynamics call into question the ways in which information was disseminated in the Victorian Era. Who relayed the information and who received it? What biases caused the information to be skewed?
“The Magic Lantern” by Jean Lorrain is a compelling short story that comments on this tension. The story is driven by two men conversing while waiting for an opera to begin. One man clearly dominates the conversation as he spews his opinions at his fellow opera-goer for the majority of the interaction. He begins by stating that art is becoming infected by “darkness” (173). He furthers this by claiming that one “could very easily convince yourself that we live, even in the fullness of modernity, in the midst of the damned, surrounded by the spectres of human heads and other horrors; that everyday we brush up against vampires and ghouls” (173). This idea of “infection” suggests that something that was once healthy (the upper class) is now sick with the introduction of a foreign body (the middle/lower classes). In claiming this “infection” is effecting art suggests that this new audience for literature and performance is not welcome. Additionally, the man likens people of this lower class to horrific mythical creatures, calling them “vampires” and “ghouls,” and effectively suggesting they are sucking the decency and beauty from this “high” culture. This man continues the conversation with his friend to say: “I put it you that every evening, every arena of Parisian society—including the Opera and the gatherings of the great and the good of France—is a rendezvous of necromantic mages” (173). The inclusion of the phrase “I put it to you” is important. It signifies that the man is drawing on nothing but his own opinion when speaking to his friend. The friend (and more importantly the reader) is therefore receiving only the information the man chooses to share. The man makes it very clear that this infection has “the great and good of France” as well as “the opera.” The effect of this is two-fold: the man not only aligns himself and his friend with the “great and good of France,” but he establishes the fact that these people of “low” culture were sitting amongst them. The result of this, according to the man, was “necromantic mages”—the death of art and “high” culture.
The man, apparently feeling unsatisfied with this persuasion, proceeds to point out to his friend instances of “infection” he sees in the audience of this opera. Of course, most of these examples are scathing judgments of women. It is important to note that the man encourages his friend to “use the opera-glasses” to watch these people. This puts into question the validity of what this friend sees, as his view is tainted not only by the man’s opinion on the subject, but also his complete control of where this added lens is pointed.
The man asks his friend to look at one woman in the “depths of the ground-floor boxes” (175), forming a physical hierarchy of “high” and “low culture.” He takes note for his friend the characteristics of the woman: “those flared nostrils, those linen pallors, those hypnotic eyes, those bloodless arms” (175). The repetition of the word “those” establishes a barrier between the men and the woman. He continues by calling “those” women “the wives of Merchant Bankers and Sugar-Refiners, all of them morphinated, cauterized, dosed, drugged” (175). The man observes for his friend the “physical” sickness of these women and suggests that the very fibers of their being are tainted and dirty. He makes the direct connection between these women and the men of the middle class, suggesting with the severity of his judgment that these people are not worthy of being at such a high-class event.