Monsters & Madness

Secret Lives in Victorian Literature

Author: daus

“No Thank You, John” -> “Thank U, Next”

Something about the poem by Christina Rossetti called “No Thank You, John” reminded me of Ariana Grande’s new song, “Thank U, Next”. The poem and the song are closely related in their meaning and empowering language for woman towards men. But the thing that really stood out to me is the possible differences in the reaction of today’s society to Ariana Grande’s lyrics and the reaction that someone may have had to Christina Rossetti’s poem. Both the poem and the song center around woman empowerment and women’s courage to push against what society expects of them. In many articles and blogs that have come out following Ariana Grande’s song, they praise her for having the courage to move on, to break an engagement even when it is expected of her by millions of fans to follow through on  it. In a post by Erica Hawkins, she says, “It takes courage to control your own narrative, particularly as a woman… everyone… wants a hand in writing (or re-writing) your story” (https://hellogiggles.com/reviews-coverage/music/ariana-grande-thank-u-next-breakup-empowering/). Both of these woman took charge in telling their own story, just written in two different time periods. In todays society, in the 21st century, if people are still saying how courageous it was for Ariana to say no to a man, focus on friends, and love herself, then Christina Rossetti must have really received push back against her poem written in the Victorian era when she writes about doing something similar. In this poem, she isn’t talking about her breaking an engagement like Ariana but she is saying “I’d rather answer “No” to fifty Johns, than answer “Yes” to you” (Rossetti). Rossetti is being courageous, pushing against the Victorian era’s societal norms that said you needed a man, for economic purposes and because you were expected as a woman to marry and uphold the domestic/motherly space.

Stoker’s Battle With Gender

Bram Stoker uses the novel Dracula as a platform to work through his feelings regarding gender during the Victoria era through his character, Mina. This became evident to me in the second half of the book where Stoker struggles to go even a page without fluctuating between describing Mina in a masculine way and then feminizing her again. This is important because it shows the struggle that people in this time period were going through. Whether society should allow woman and feel comfortable with woman out of their domestic, motherly space in order to be a brave, independent woman. This is represented when Stoker writes as Mina in Mina’s journal on page 245, “We women have something of the mother in us that makes us rise above smaller matters when the mother-spirit is invoked…”. This was the scene where Mina is comforting Arthur who is sobbing in the arms of Mina, being described as being like a “baby” or her “own child” (Stoker 245). Just five pages later, the Professor says “Ah, that wonderful Madam Mina! She has man’s brain, a brain that a man should have were he much gifted – and a woman’s heart” (Stoker 250). In the passage on page 250 is where the men are deciding to not let Mina do the mans work with them anymore with the reasoning of being “a young woman and not so long married” (Stoker 250). Even though Mina has proven to have a “man’s brain” and had been helping the men with their hunt for Dracula, they decide on this page that she is no longer fit or able to work with them on this matter (Stoker 250). This is where Stoker’s real feelings on a woman’s role in Victorian era society shines through, keeping her in this household and taking her out of any masculine role of helping with the hunt. Mina is stripped solely down to being seen as someone who should be in the domestic space, being the new wife, and possible future mother. This is important because on that very page they decide to keep her within the domestic she is described to have these masculine features that not even the men she is with have. The feminine qualities within her overpowered what were seen as masculine tendencies back then. This continues to happen up to the very last page of the novel where she is described as a wonderful mother, but on the same page is also described with the same adjective as the manliest man in the book, Mr. Morris… “gallant” (Stoker 401 and 402). It is interesting to use this word for the manliest, American cowboy in the book and also Mina. This stands out to me to be the perfect way to end the novel because even on that very last page, Stoker is still struggling to separate Mina from being masculine and being a completely feminine character.

Representations of Illness and Madness in Dracula

In Dracula by Bram Stoker the Victorian era fear of illness and madness penetrating their society is drawn upon at every turn. Much like Lady Audley’s Secret, focus on Lady Audley’s madness and isolating her from society once she is considered mad, that same fear and concept is manifested throughout Dracula. In Dracula, almost every character at some points questions their sanity, and in Dracula’s case, he is feared due to his “illness”, “madness”, or “insanity”. Not only is Dracula looked at as being mad or ill, he continuously mentions madness throughout the novel, highlighting the Victorian eras fear and hyperawareness of madness and insanity.

After Jonathan’s arrival to the Count’s castle, he begins to question his sanity when he says, “When I look back after a few hours I think I must have been mad for the time, for I behaved much as a rat does in a trap” (Stoker 34). Throughout Chapter 3, Jonathan mentions frequently, almost begging, that he hopes while he is living with the Count that he is able to stay sane. He continues later on in the chapter journaling, “God preserve my sanity, for to this I am reduced… Whilst I live on here there is but one thing to hope for, that I may not go mad, if, indeed, I be not mad already…” (Stoker 43). At this point, Jonathan is praying that his sanity remains throughout the rest of his stay with the Count. This passage highlights the fear of the Victorian era of becoming mad and being seen as mad by others. This would usually result in being placed in an asylum and due to the societal fears of madness, that was a great fear of that time period.

The entire diary entry of Dr. Seward’s about Renfield, is another interesting passage surrounding madness and illness. Dr. Seward is a doctor in an asylum and in the novel, the audience gets multiple journal entries about Dr. Seward’s patient, Renfield, all referring to his growing madness. Throughout the passage Dr. Sweard was having glimpses of hope surrounding the improvement of his patient. Then suddenly, “His face fell, and I could see a warning of danger in it, for there was a sudden fierce, sidelong look which meant killing. The man is an undeveloped homicidal maniac” (79).  This is where Dr. Seward begins to classify Renfield and label him as mad. He begins, “My homicidal maniac is of a peculiar kind. I shall have to invent a new classification for him, and call him a zoöphagous (life-eating) maniac” (Stoker 79-80). This is a great example of needing to label someone with a specific madness and illness, even if that means inventing something new. Dr. Seward fears what Renfield can do and by giving him a diagnoses it warns people of his capabilities and continues the societal norm that these patients can’t necessarily be helped.

This theme of madness and the possibility of going mad from the circumstances you are placed in is brought up continuously in other parts of the novel as well. Lucy in some ways is a character that is highlighted as going mad and needing to be isolated due to her increased illness and madness. This begins with her sleepwalking and continues more as this behavior and other behaviors escalate. Dracula is also stereotypically represented as someone who is ill and mad throughout the book, used to perpetuate the Victorian eras thoughts surrounding madness and illness and how those things impact society. It is a constant theme throughout the book thus far, and I am sure will continue to be as we read.

Sensation and Discomfort

Throughout Lady Audley’s Secret and A Terribly Strange Bed there is a theme of overloading, repetitive description of certain domestic and natural spaces that really help shape the novel and short story as sensation pieces of literature. I argue that without these passages of repetitive, exasperated detail the novels would not be nearly as effective as sensation novels. A sensation novel as we discussed in class is meant to make modern day readers nervous and uncomfortable. In the Victorian era, sensation novels not only were made to thrill and make people nervous, they made people very uncomfortable. Sensation novels pushed the bounds of what was discussed publicly, outside of the domestic, private sphere during the Victorian era. The language used in both pieces of literature helps the authors create this suspenseful, discomforting, nervous energy as you read. To point out one specific passage from A Terribly Strange Bed, on pages 35-36, that begins with “I soon felt not only that I could not go to sleep…”. In this passage, there is a repetition of “Now, I…” that goes on without a sentence break for about 9 lines. The passage depicts Mr. Faulkner being very uncomfortable and not being able to fall asleep while in the bed inside the gambling house. As I read this passage, I began to realize that not only was he uncomfortable, I was beginning to get uncomfortable along with him. This sensation I was getting while reading made me think about the genre of sensation novels themselves. They are quite literally made to make you feel something, which was effectively done in this passage by going in to expansive detail about Mr. Faulkner’s thoughts and feelings. Pushing beyond my own feelings and thinking about my knowledge through class about the Victorian period, the most safe places for people were supposed to be the domestic sphere. A passage like this that takes place within a domestic space, where readers of that time would assume he is safe, brings out how unsafe he really is by creating suspense as to what is going on, why he can’t sleep, and what is to come in his future. The suspense created by the repetitive “Now I…” in the passage I touched on above made readers feel unsteady and unsure of what was to come next (little did they know he was about to be (almost) suffocated by the bed itself). Without the repetition and use of such descriptive language, sensation novels would not have been as effective in pushing the bounds of comfortability and societal norms during the Victorian era. Without this style of writing within the sensation genre that we have now seen in a sensation poem, a sensation novel, and a sensation short story, I believe that the sensation genre itself would not be the same, may not exist, may not be remembered or read, re-done, made into movies, shows, etc. still so frequently today, and/or would not be as effective of a genre as a whole.

Robert’s Laziness

There is a reoccurring theme in this book about Robert Audley being lazy and George leaving him during his restful moments. On pg. 75, the first page of the chapter “After the Storm”, Robert is described as sitting through the storm the same way he does every thing else in life: by lying on the couch, reading days old newspaper. Within the same paragraph, they transition to talking about George Talboys who is active, fearful of the storm, and moving around the room, and leaving him to go outside to walk in the rain. On pg. 99, the first page of “Troubled Dreams”, Robert Audley is described using the word “lazy” once again, but this time in a complimentary way, as he is has been searching relentlessly for George Talboys. Within this same paragraph George Talboys is brought up talking about George as to how he left Robert again, but this time while he was being lazy, sleeping during fishing much like the language used on pg. 75. After the narrator is complimentary of how hard Robert has worked for 48 hours trying to find letters that George left behind, the narrator delves into Robert’s sleep and dreams. He goes to bed until he woken up by someone at the door. The narrator’s language surrounding Robert has led me to believe that they blame, in some way, George’s disappearance on Robert’s laziness. If he had just been up while they were fishing maybe George wouldn’t have disappeared. Even the way that the narrator depicts Robert’s search for George is sluggish, taking breaks for naps frequently and moving slowly on the mystery of his disappearance. I would argue that the language the narrator uses is purposeful. In a few paragraphs the narrator is describing George and Robert as binaries, one passive and one active. In more than one case as well, the narrator is connecting Robert’s lazy, sleepy nature to George being gone and having left during that time of rest.

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