Monsters & Madness

Secret Lives in Victorian Literature

Author: RiverStream

The Demonization of Looking Different

In Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde, the appearance of Mr.Hyde is a driving force for Utterson’s suspicions. Mr.Hyde is widely disliked, and most times this directly stems from the way he looks.  After his first meeting with Hyde, Utterson describes him as such,

“Mr. Hyde was pale and dwarfish, he gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation, he had a displeasing smile, he had borne himself to the lawyer with a sort of murderous mixture of timidity and boldness, and he spoke with a husky, whispering and somewhat broken voice; all these were points against him, but not all of these together could explain the hitherto unknown disgust, loathing, and fear with which Mr. Utterson regarded him. “(Stevenson Ch 1)

The word that stood out to me here was “deformity” because it indicates a difference that is often looked down upon in society. In Victorian times the pseudosciences that were popular often attributed the physical appearance of a person to their mental state and to prove the lesser value of types of people. LIke an amateur Sherlock, Utterson is clued to a “murderous” side to Mr. Hyde by his deformed appearance. Hyde’s villainy is, for the most part, not portrayed through his actions but by his physical traits. The ways he talks, walks,  and looks different from the upper-class people is meant to be an obvious marker to the Victorian era reader that Mr.Hyde has ulterior motives.  The description of Hyde perpetuates a demonization and devaluation of people with deformities as inherently evil. Hyde is met with this attitude in the story of him running into the little girl when he is confronted by an angry mob of sorts.  In this sense, Mr. Hyde is just another example of a victim of Victorian societal prejudices that is written to be the bad guy.

 

“Otherness” as Seen Through the Victorian Microscope

In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the monster Count Dracula is a manifestation of a multitude of Victorian fears and obsessions. Dracula represents the simultaneous fear and obsession with people from other lands. Although it is natural to fear the unknown, such as what could be creeping in the dark, the British population fears lied in the foreign people they knew little about. Dracula represents a common demonization of foreigners seen in other novels such as Jane Eyre, Heart of Darkness, in which non-British people are shown to be subhuman (or in Dracula’s case not human at all) and pose a threat to the pure British characters. Even without his supernatural powers, Dracula is a fearful figure in the sense that he embodies the anxieties of reverse colonization. When Jonathan was going around Dracula’s castle, he came across a myriad of English literature. On these Dracula states, “Through them I have come to know your great England; and to know her is to love her. I long to go through the crowded streets of your mighty London…” (Stroker 27) Unlike the British, Dracula knows all about the people foreign to him leaving him with the upper hand. At the same time historically, the people who had been colonized by the British were assimilated and taught the Victorian way of life. In the Victorian eye, this left them vulnerable to be colonized in return.

One would argue that Van Helsing’s presence on the good side meant that the depiction of foreigners was not completely negative, but in reality, Stoker painted just as bad a picture of foreigners with Van Helsing as he did with Dracula only he used different techniques to do so. Even if Van Helsing is a protagonist in the story, his depiction still shows a demeaning representation of foreign peoples. Even if he is said to be an extremely learned man, yet Stoker put great effort in making Van Helsing speech choppy and grammatically confusing. On top of this, he rarely went beyond being the superstitious foreigner trope in his characterization.  His presence in the novel serves to praise the British on their “perfection”,  as seen when he praises Mina and Arthur multiple times. Van Helsing serves to reassure the Victorian reader that there are still good, loyal foreigners who knew their place.  The fixation on these representations of different ethnicity stems from the vast brutality of the British Empire.  The Victorian people were exposed to diverse people from all around the world and treated them like specimen rather than human since they first stepped into foreign lands. The fascination with “otherness” is basically the Victorian people trying to hypothesis, examine, and come to conclusions in an attempt to understand “others”,  while doing everything to not have to consider non-British people their counterparts. 

 

In Conclusion,

The Fear and Fetishizing of “Exotic Beauty”

Although Bram Stoker’s Dracula has an overtone that speaks to fears of the supernatural, it also contains an undertone that speaks to the Victorian fear of the foreign and channels these fears into the portrayal of foreign women. In Jonathan Harker’s narration of his time in Transylvania, he makes sure to make it apparent how odd everything was in this land. Besides the offhand remarks referring to Slovak people as “barbaric” (Stoker 9), the depiction of foreign women struck me as particularly interesting. When Harker was visited by the three women in Dracula’s castle, the women’s “dark” skin and “high aquiline noses” (Stoker 44) added to their dangerously sensual spell over Harker. He says how their exotic spell over him compromised him morally, and that, “There was something about them that made me uneasy, some longing and at the same time some deadly fear.”(Stoker 45) While their features are similar to those of Count Dracula, rather than making them monstrously fearful, the women’s exotic features make them dangerous in a sexual way. This fetishization of women is also seen in  Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which depicts the treacherous journey of an Englishman and his crew through the Congo River in Africa. Once again, the depiction of the foreign lands and its people are shown as odd and barbaric in the eyes of a Victorian-era man. The women are the exclusion of this barbaric depiction with a fetishized one in exchange.  In this story, the portrayal of a black woman with her exotic beauty and sensuality serves as a source of danger for the Victorian man. In both, women are used to demonstrate the primal nature that these foreign lands and people incite in otherwise honorable British men. The irony of these fears lies in the cruel colonization on the British front to said foreigners. Perhaps these fear steamed from the realizations of how harshly the British treated those they colonized, leading the Victorians to be fearful of the same sort of “colonization” of their lands and culture.

 

The Description of Victorian Women Through the Male Gaze

In the two very distinct novels “Lady Audley’s Secret” and “The Hound of Baskervilles”, the representation of women, especially in their introduction, is strikingly similar. The narratives of the two stories differ greatly; “Lady Audley’s Secret” tells the story of a man’s plight to figure out the disappearance of his good friend and the true identity of the titular lady, while “The Hound of Baskervilles” follow the famed detective Sherlock Holmes to investigate the supposed supernatural death of a Sir Charles Baskerville through the eyes of Holmes’ friend Dr.Watson. The obvious similarity of the two novels is the investigation of a death, but a subtle similarity that struck me was the description of the female characters. In “Lady Audley’s Secret”, Lucy Graham first is described as having ,”…soft and melting blue eyes; the graceful beauty of that slender throat and drooping head, with its wealth of showering flaxen curls; the low music of that gentle voice; the perfect harmony which pervaded every charm…” (Braddon 12) This very detailed description of Lucy is almost uncomfortable in its tone and specificity. In “The Hound Of Baskerville”, Watson gives a very similar description of Miss Stapleton in which he goes into detail about her skin, hair, face, mouth, and eyes.(Doyle 70) The description of the women focused more on their physical attributes, and this type of narration of the women continue throughout the books. It should also be noted that these physically detailed descriptions both come from men, one being Sir Michael Audley and the other being Dr.Watson. The depiction of the women in both books put primary focus on their physical appearance while the ones of men do not. I think that the image of women in the stories shows how the females characters were meant to serve as something for the male characters to consume rather than be rounded characters.

The Doubled Edged Bladed that is Lady Audley’s Femininity

Throughout the novel, Lady Audley is seen as the pinnacle of ideal Victorian womanhood. She is conventionally attractive, charming, and fragile. When she goes to visit Robert in the Castle Inn she says to him,”…but my dear, silly husband must needs take it into his foolish head that it is dangerous for his poor, little wife’s peace of mind to have a nephew of eight or nine-and-twenty smoking his cigars in her boudoir…(Braddon 141)” Here Lady Audley attempts to cocoon herself in fragility and innocence. She describes herself as a “poor, little” wife and her syntax is immature. Through the perception of her in the eyes of others, Lady Audley is able to hide her true motives behind her femininity. In this instance, her act does not fool Robert, and her infantile facade if broken. Before this point, Lady Audley’s innocent front was almost a weapon to what she wanted. She wooed and continues to manipulate her wealthy husband with her feminine, naive guise to get want she wanted. In a society where women have little aspiration to strive for, it is quite admirable that she used what was presented to her and runs with it.  It will be interesting to see how Lady Audley’s weapon of femininity both benefits and betrays her. I believe that this novel tries to, as best it can in Victorian culture, send a message of the power of femininity through Lady Audley’s manipulation of it.

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