Trivialize or Normalize

In reading the work of Swinburne, I was constantly lost in his pretty rhyme schemes. They are always perfect, always finding a word to rhyme with Faustine, always completing each complicated rhyme scheme that he chose for the poem. These constantly perfect rhymes tend to give a sing-song effect to the poems – “A Match” is an excellent example of this. The constant rhyming also made me feel as though the whole of each poem was childish or trivial, just a cute poem that was fun to listen to and then move onto the next one without giving it much in depth thought. But Swinburne challenges this tendency at every turn. His poems talk about very heady topics, love and sex, pain and death, and usually in relation to actions or situations that are not socially acceptable (i.e. necrophilia).

One could argue that discussing these kinds of topics within such strict rhyme schemes that seem to mimic nursery rhymes is an attempt to trivialize the subjects. Love, according to tradition, should be given sophisticated sonnets rather rhyming quatrains, and implications of sex should be veiled with beautiful language about flowers and overpowering love instead of blood and pain. But Swinburne works to invert these traditions through both his rhyme schemes and his subject matter.

The poem “In the Orchard” is no exception. It has a simple rhyme scheme of aabab ccbcb ddbdb, etc. to talk about passionate love. He includes some flower imagery to bring up virginity – “take it then, my flower…/My rose, so like a tender mouth it is” (line 18-19). This in of itself is an inversion from more traditional poetry in that the female has the voice in the poem and is taking agency in initiating sex with her male partner rather than a male telling a female to not be so prudish and to take pleasure, or rather allow him to take his pleasure from her, while she is still desirable to him.

The love story then becomes more graphic, with the speaker wanting to be slain now that she has had sex and reached a sublime.

Self-Gaze and Sexuality

Throughout reading The Picture of Dorian Gray, I have been trying to figure out how the gaze functions. I am usually drawn to how men and women view each other, and seeing who becomes the object of someone else’s gaze. The relationship between Dorian and Sybil is a typical one. The male gains extreme pleasure in viewing a female body, especially knowing that he cannot be viewed in return. In Dorian, this pleasure manifests itself in his infatuated proposal of marriage to Sybil so that he will always be able to possess this amazing creature. And we see where this plan fails – Sybil reminds him that she is human, not just a character on a stage, when she is no longer able to act out the love of others because her feelings for Dorian are so strong. He immediately rejects her because she is no longer a perfectly pleasing object, and his spiral into debauchery begins.

That is a normal exemplification of the effects of the male gaze on a female subject-made-object. But I am having trouble understanding the implications of the picture of Dorian and the effects it has on him. The picture is an object from which others could originally gain great pleasure – it belies Basil’s obsession with the beautiful young man, and in the normal expression of the male gaze would then feminize Dorian. In that moment, Dorian demands that no one else is allowed to have the paining, no one else is allowed to feminize him in that way, and he choosing to follow Lord Henry’s advice of constantly seeking beauty.

But Dorian becomes obsessed with looking at this picture as it comes to reflect his soul rather than his beauty, which he gets to keep as long as he doesn’t destroy the painting. I am not sure how to obsession with self within the conversation about the gaze – a male is taking pleasure in seeing his own beauty as an object, and continues to gain a sort of sick pleasure in seeing how his soul is being destroyed through his sinful life. He is, in a way, feminizing himself, the action which when it came from Basil caused him to start down the path of an aesthetic. Is this constant viewing of his true self, and of the destruction on his own purity, the motivation behind Dorian’s scandalously sinful life?

It would seem odd in a book that is basically teeming with homoerotic connections between the male characters and Dorian, that Dorian would react so negatively to his constant self-feminization. He wants to always be with Lord Henry around, a man who explicitly wants to dominate Dorian in the way that Dorian dominated Basil, which puts Dorian in the stereotypically female submissive role. Dorian is seeking that kind of relationship from Lord Henry, but he seems to hate when he is put into that female position.

I’m still struggling with how to understand how the male gaze works on Dorian, and how self-gaze affects his actions, but I think that these different gazes are somehow connected to Dorian’s sexuality that he does not seem to be able to come to terms with.

Children of the Night

Vampires are constantly in the cultural spotlight. In literature and on the screen, we are bombarded with sexy portrayals of immortal bloodsuckers, and two that stand out to me are Interview with a Vampire and, very sadly, Twilight. Both of these narratives take basic elements of Dracula and mix them with very different versions of what it means to be a vampire.

All of the vampires have some inherent attractiveness that is also seen as threatening, in some indescribable way, either to society as a whole or to heterosexuality or to basic physical safety. In addition, this magnetism allows them to seduce their human prey, as well as overwhelming strength to subdue them if they are able to resist their sexual appeal. The humans that see Dracula and the Cullens remark about the strange colors and fury in their eyes. Dracula and Lestat both feel that they should be masters wherever they go – Dracula wanting to be able to imitate the British upper class so as to not lose his aristocratic standing, and Lestat believing that vampires are the ultimate predators that have the right to anything and everything they want.

However, these other stories delve further into questions the Dracula leaves unanswered. Both play with the idea of child vampires. The female vampires in Dracula only eat children, and none of Stoker’s vampires are pictured having sex with other vampires or with humans. It is also made very explicit through the timeline mentioned in the closing note that the Harker child Quincey is the offspring of both Harkers, not of Mina and Dracula.

In Interview with a Vampire, Lestat turns the young Claudia into a vampire so that Louis could have someone to take care of. At first, everything seems to be alright, but Claudia eventually starts to abuse her newfound power like Lestat does, and spirals out of control when she realizes that she will never change. She will never grow up, she will never be a mother, she will only ever be a doll like girl. In the end, she is destroyed for her recklessness, and because of some trouble with the Paris coven.

In the Twilight series, Edward and Bella consummate their marriage before Bella becomes a vampire, and this results in their half-human-half-vampire daughter Renesmee. She is able to grow and change into an adult, but does so extremely rapidly. The Cullens then find out about the existence of other half children, and a war breaks out with the Volturi, the vampire royalty of sorts that tries to keep vampires from being discovered by humans, because immortal children are uncontrollable and thus forbidden.

Both of these tales show the danger of vampire children, a question that Stoker did not even try to address, and I think that is because of what the question society is facing today is. The Victorians were afraid of reverse invasion, the mysterious, uncivilized, possibly colonized other coming back to Britain and taking over. Today, I think people are more worried about reproduction. The other is already here, our society is (somewhat) more integrated, and now bloodlines between races and religions are mixing, and we don’t know what to do about it. If we don’t know how to classify someone as exclusively one attribute, like black or Muslim, we don’t know what think of or expect from them, and that terrifies us. We like to have clear cut groupings, but that doesn’t exist anymore – so now the vampires in our literature are reproducing for us to look at this new problem through the lens of fiction just like the Victorians did.

The Pleasure of Viewing Irene Adler

Irene Adler

Irene Adler is one of the few ‘criminals’ against whom Sherlock Holmes is unable to exact some sort of punishment. She is an intellectual match for Holmes, even causing the man to hold off “[making] merry over the cleverness of women” after he is bested by her (19). However, this supposed female equal to Holmes only has one line in her own words in the entire story of A Scandal in Bohemia – “Surely. Bring him into the sitting-room. There is a comfortable sofa. This way, please!” (15). These are the only words Adler utters in her own voice: otherwise Holmes retells her words and the reader is given a mere sense of her voice in the letter she leaves for Holmes.

Adler’s character is conveyed through the opinions of the men who come into contact with her. Holmes file on Adler reveals her American birth and operatic career (7). The King tells the detective pair that “she has the face of the most beautiful of women and the mind of the most resolute of men” (8). Holmes decides while following Alder that “she is the daintiest thin under a bonnet on this planet” and “she was a lovely woman, with a face that a man might die for” (10 – 11). Watson remarks on “her superb figure” as she watches the crowd tends to the injured Father Holmes, and calls her a “beautiful creature” (15). Adler is revealed to the reader piece by beautiful piece through the eyes of men; she is an object of which they discuss its merits, usually with the King wishing that she was of a higher birth because she would “have made an admirable queen” (19).

This Holmes adventure is an example of the male gaze at work. Laura Mulvey discusses the male gaze in her piece “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” showing that the camera takes on the role of a man looking at a woman. This is why sex scenes usually focus heavily on the females face because that is what the male audience wants to see. It is a moment of scopophilia, or gaining pleasure in looking – basically a peeping Tom situation (Mulvey 835).  This scenario is repeated in Doyle’s work – all three men name Adler as an extremely beautiful creature and they are all after a photograph of her with the King.

The photo, however, complicates this narrative. A picture is something that can also be looked at and allow the viewer to gain pleasure from it. But this photograph, this potential source of scopophilia, is possessed by a woman, which means it must be wrong. Adler having the picture of her and the King opens the doors for a female to gaze at an image of a man for her own gain, and her only crime is threatening to let another woman look at said picture. The King claims that she is black mailing him to ruin his reputation and marriage, but Adler never has the chance to divulge her motives – who says she wasn’t trying to save another woman from an unhappy union to a man who she knows has done wrong? Adler has a set of man’s clothes, her “walking-clothes,” that she uses in order to be able to move about freely, and this guise is even convincing enough to fool Holmes as she passes him at his apartment, which shows that she understands the limited power women have over their own lives –– so why would she not be willing to help a woman who was being forced to marry a man without knowing his true character? (18)

The men see the photograph as a weapon that would hinder the proper social order: the King marrying a worthy princess to continue the royal bloodlines in Europe, but Adler views it as a weapon to safeguard herself “from any steps which [the King] might take in the future” (19). In this case, she is able to retain her weapon of protection, and in its hiding place she leaves another “which [the King] might care to possess” – this “photograph was of Irene Adler herself in an evening dress” (18 – 19). In this sense, Adler gets the last laugh because she willingly gives the men an attractive picture of herself in the midst of foiling Holmes’ plan. She is proving that she is not an unwilling object being viewed, but a person worthy of merit, even if she does fulfill the stereotypical marriage plot in the end, maintaining the original status quo.

Colonization through “The Law”

One of the most obvious overarching themes of The Island of Dr. Moreau is the colonialism story, reflecting the relationship that England had with one fourth of the world’s population by the 1890s. Colonizing nations took over “less civilized” territories to take advantage of the resources of the land, but under the guise of bettering the lives of the colonized peoples. The Victorians applied Darwin’s ideas about evolution to society to place their culture above those of the peoples they were invading, validating their right to attempt to civilize the people brought into Victoria’s empire by educating them in English language, culture and history. They would “uplift” these peoples’ lives while simultaneously destroying that which connected them to their heritage. This uplift and destruction took place around the world, and Richard Pratt, founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, sums up the sentiment best when speaking about the point of educating Native Americans in 1892: “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man” (

Schools meant to stamp out non-western European cultures were set up in all colonized lands, and we see a mirror of this school in the Law that the beast-men live by after Moreau turns them out because he “[began] to feel the beast in them” instead of them retaining a human mentality (Wells 59). The beast-men repeat their law when a new creature arrives, and mistaking the protagonist Prendick for another of Moreau’s vivisected animals, “the Sayer of the Law” begins the process of teaching him (Wells 44). The Law serves two main purposes – to define the place of the beast-men in the island’s society and to prescribe their actions so that they stay ‘men.’

The Law begins by prohibiting certain beast-like behaviors – “not to go on all-Fours…. not to suck up Drink…. not to eat Flesh or Fish…. not to claw Bark of Trees…. not to chase other Men” (Wells 43). By avoiding these actions, the beast-men act more like men, as they desire to do. And if they do any of these things, “evil are the punishments of those who break the Law;” fear tactics and negative-reinforcement training is in place in their society to keep them in order (Wells 44).

The other part of the Law is ascribing characteristics of power and ownership to some male figure – “His is the House of Pain. His is the hand that Makes…. His is the lightning-flash…. His are the starts in the sky,” (Wells 43). The beast-men are worshipping this figure, assigning to him the powers of creation and healing, as well as pain and destruction, basically saying that he is the master of all things, but the figure is never specified. It is likely Dr. Moreau because he is the one that causes these being unimaginable pain, but he is also the one that enables them to have this ability to think and understand, even if in a limited capacity, but it is still never explicitly stated who is being worshipped, or where this Law originated.

Someone had to give the Sayer of the Law these rules and instill this hero-worship, but it is presented to new creatures by one of their own as if this Law is, was, and always will be the natural order of things, even though that is not remotely true. Moreau has only been doing this kind of vivisection for a little over a decade, and there was no way for this Law of the beast-men to be in place before this. But this presentation of a set of constructed societal principles as the natural order of things is exactly how colonized peoples were educated. They were forced into a new way of life, told how to act and punished severely if they showed disobedient behavior, and this forced assimilation was often done at the hands of previous generations of their own people. An example of this is Wallace Denny, who went through the Carlisle Indian School system, a system intent on killing his heritage, and then returned to work for that system as a disciplinarian for other native children. This is how the cycle of colonization is able to continue for generations, often with little input from the colonizer once the system is in place. The only flaw in this scheme, however, is what happens when the colonized begin to take their new knowledge and use it for their own aims, a terrifying possibility which was just beginning to fully set in for the Victorians.