Monsters & Madness

Secret Lives in Victorian Literature

Author: Patrick

Victorian Opinions on Marriage: “No, Thank You, John,” Versus “Dracula”

“No, Thank You, John,” by Christina Rossetti is a poem that shows the power that women can wield in a romantic relationship; the power to say “no.”  While controversial for the Victorian era, Rossetti’s poem shows the amount of agency that women can achieve.  Even though a man may have institutional power over women, “No Thank You, John,” shows that women can still have power, even in a society as oppressive to women as Victorian England.  This is contrasted by Bram Stoker’s message in Dracula, which suggests through Lucy Westenra, that a proposal for marriage should be either accepted enthusiastically, or turned away with great sympathy and sorrow.

In “No, Thank You, John,” the narrator says, “Why will you tease me day by day. . . With always ‘do’ and ‘pray’. . . “And pray don’t remain single for my sake” (Rossetti, 30-31).  Here, the narrator not only tells her suitor that she will never view him as a romantic partner, but she also subtly mocks him.  One of the reasons why the narrator is annoyed with John is because of his constant conversations about loving her, in which he often uses the word “pray.”  The female narrator uses the word “pray” to mock John’s constant questioning of her.  By using John’s own language when rejecting him, shows that she does not care about societal expectations of how a woman should act when a man asks to marry her.  The connotation the narrator’s mockery of John is not necessarily that she is inconsiderate, but rather that she desires her own agency in matters concerning her own future.  At the end of the poem, she suggests that they should “strike hands as hearty friends,” noting that John should not have ulterior motives (Rossetti, 31).  This poem shows the blunt, yet not wholly inconsiderate rejection of John’s marriage proposal to the narrator.

Conversely, in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, all men who propose to Lucy are put on a figurative pedestal.  The simple fact that they had asked Lucy to marry them and were rejected suggests that Lucy is obligated to feel guilty for not marrying them; it suggests that although Lucy has agency to decide who marries her, she nonetheless has to feel shame over it.  When Lucy turns down Dr. Seward and Quincey Morris, she reflects that, “women, I am afraid, are not always quite as fair as they should be. . . I can’t help crying. . . I feel so miserable” (Stoker, 65).  The connotation of this passage is that Lucy is to blame for everything, when, in reality, the fact that she is in love with Arthur Holmwood, a perfectly nature occurrence is the reason.  This suggests that a woman’s love for a man is secondary to the man’s heartbreak.  Although unfortunate for Quincy and Dr. Seward, it is not Lucy’s fault, as she has every right to marry who she loves the most.  Victorian society assigns blame to the female in this situation unjustly.

Overall, Christina Rossetti’s poem embodies the more controversial, liberal values of Victorian society regarding marriage, while Bram Stoker perpetuates the Victorian era’s more prevalent, and conservative outlook on marriage.

Science and Pseudoscience in Dracula

Science and Pseudoscience figure prominently in Dracula because they reflect the confusion that Victorians felt about the mysteries of the modern world.  Throughout the novel, the line between science, pseudoscience, and superstition is blurred.   Although living in a time of modernity, some vestiges of the older times were still part of Victorian life such as superstition, belief in the occult, and seances.  Characters in Dracula  attempt to use science in order to explain a world of chaos and disorder, thereby representing a distinct Victorian anxiety.

Throughout Dracula, characters continually attempt to use science in order to solve their problems with the supernatural.  With the exception of Van Helsing, all of the characters need to be told that supernatural means need to be used to counteract supernatural forces.  For example, despite all of the evidence to suggest that there is no scientific explanation for Lucy’s behavior, her unnatural pallor, and her lack of body decomposition after death, Dr. Seward remains apprehensive.  He asks Van Helsing, “‘But why do it at all? The girl is dead. Why mutilate her poor body without need? And if there is no necessity for a post-mortem and nothing to gain by it, no good to her, to us, to science, to human knowledge, why do it? Without such it is monstrous.’” (Stoker, 236).  Dr. Seward’s sensibilities as a Victorian doctor are challenged by Van Helsing.  He believes that nothing can be gained in terms of scientific knowledge by driving a stake through Lucy’s heart, but he fails to acknowledge what he saw before her death; that there were bite marks on her neck, garlic that had to be put around her neck, a crucifix, and that they had to transfuse blood into her despite the fact that he never saw her bleeding. Throughout Dr. Seward’s time with Lucy, un-scientific phenomena occurred, but he rejected it and refused to believe it because he could not concede that science was not able explain what happened before his eyes.  Moreover, the books that Van Helsing consults in order to treat Lucy’s vampire are all in Amsterdam, that is they are outsides of the confines of England.   

Van Helsing says, “I must go back to Amsterdam tonight. . . There are books there and things that I want” (Stoker, 178) and again later in the novel, as whenever he has to do research about the supernatural, it appears that no resources in England will help him.  One connotation of this is that the intellectual elite of England’s modern society is done with the supernatural superstitions of the past, while foreigners are more reluctant to part with old ways of belief.  This reflects the debate in Victorian society of science, versus religion, versus superstition which is why this science and pseudoscience feature so prominently in the novel.

Overall, science is the first resort of Dracula’s main characters.  This illustrates the changing times in Victorian society, showing that although science was deemed to be the best way to explain phenomena, other forms of belief such as superstition, and religion still had a place in the world.

Colonialism and Classism in Dracula

In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, themes such as colonial domination, and classism are omnipresent in the attitude of the novel’s titular character, Count Dracula.  As a nobleman in Transylvania, Dracula prides himself on his family’s history and the effect that it has had on the country as a whole as, “ In his speaking of things and people, and especially of battles, he spoke as if he had been present at them all. . . [the] pride of his house and name is his own pride, that their glory is his glory, that their fate is his fate (Stoker, 35).”  By presenting his family and himself as being integral to the national fate of Romania, Dracula is attempting to prove to Harker (an Englishman) that he is deserving of his noble blood and, therefore, respect.  

Dracula wants to immigrate from an impoverished, uninfluential nation (Romania) to the world’s most powerful country (England).  This shows that even though Dracula is powerful among his own people, he is unsatisfied with it, as seen when Dracula tells about his fellow country men. He says that the “peasant is at heart a coward and a fool!” (Stoker, 32).  To be able to subjugate the people of the world’s most powerful country would finally prove that Dracula is deserving of his ancestor’s bloodline (as a Boyar, he explains that he is descended from Attila the Hun which may help explain his desire to conquer other lands/peoples, another reason for him to leave Romania for England).

Dracula also feels superior to commoners which shows his classist tendencies.  For example, when Harker is explaining to Dracula that the estate in England is secluded and that there is an old chapel nearby, Dracula comments, “We Transylvanian nobles love not to think that our bones may lie amongst the common dead (Stoker, 30).”  Dracula’s disdain for commoners is so great that even after death, (if Dracula ever does dies) he is comforted by the notion that his bones will not be in the same vicinity as the bones of commoners.  This class based disdain is also seen in the manner he treats the common woman whose baby he steals. Rather than sucking her blood, he lets the wolves eat her, as if to suggest that her common blood would taint his own noble blood.  Later in the novel, Count Dracula sucks the blood of Lucy, who is not a commoner as she is to marry the aristocrat Arthur Holmwood.  Through Count Dracula’s statements and actions, it is apparent that he does not want to be associated with, or interact with people who have common blood.

The Gothic Lens in The Hound of the Baskervilles and Wuthering Heights

Both The Hound of the Baskervilles and Wuthering Heights have elements of the gothic. One motif that both novels have in common is the role that houses have on its characters.  Baskerville Hall presents a foreboding setting for its inhabitants, as Baskerville “looked up the long, dark drive to where the house glimmered like a ghost at the farther end. . . a window or a coat-of-arms broke through the dark veil [of the ivy].  From this central block rose the twin towers, ancient, crenelated, and pierced with many loopholes. . .” (Doyle, 58).  This description of Baskerville Hall suggests that it is almost otherworldly.  Comparing the Hall to a “ghost” suggests that the evils that happened behind its walls are omnipresent.  The actions of Hugo Baskerville cast a shadow on the Baskerville family that is extended to the appearance, mood, and atmosphere of the house itself.  The house’s past weighs heavily upon the characters in the present.  Although in a modern age, the house is described as though it has not changed for hundreds of years.  Despite the fact that the kind, and charismatic Charles Baskerville once lived there, its setting appears more fitting for the likes of Hugo.

In Wuthering Heights, as in The Hound of the Baskervilles, the mansion has a palpable effect on the characters of the novel.  First of all, the name of the mansion is “Wuthering Heights.”  “Wuthering” is an adjective for the weather found at the manor; it is dark, unwelcoming, harsh, and windy, much like the personality of the foreboding Heathcliff, whose personality closely mirrors that of Hugo Baskerville (both Hugo and Heathcliff kidnap women and keep them in their manors as prisoner).  In both novels mansions serves as a reminder of past atrocities.  Figuratively and literally the manor is stuck in the past.  “Before passing the threshold, I paused to admire the grotesque carving lavished over the front, and especially about the principal door; above which, among a wilderness of crumbling griffins and shameless little boys, I detected the date ‘1500’” (Bronte, 2).  Here, the sense of decay in the manor is evident with “crumbling” ornaments and the fact that it was built in “1500.”  Likewise, in The Hound of the Baskervilles, Baskerville Hall is described as “ancient,” so much so that Henry’s first thought is to install electric lighting (bringing modernity to a building that is evidently stuck in the past).  In Gothic literature, houses can be as much of a character as the actual humans in the novel.  In Wuthering Heights the crumbling manor represents the wicked heart and depressing history of Heathcliff, while in The Hound of the Baskervilles, Baskerville Hall remains a stark reminder of the immoral past of the Baskerville family.


Crossing Thresholds in Lady Audley’s Secret

“Circumstantial evidence. . . a word dropped incautiously from the over-cautious lips of guilty; the fragment of a letter; the shutting or opening of a door; a shadow on a window-blind; the accuracy of a moment; a thousand circumstances so slight as to be forgotten by the criminal. . .” (Braddon, 123).

This passage shows Robert Audley finally becoming what Victorian society would have expected of an adult.  Rather than lounging around and doing nothing, Robert is putting his education as a barrister into practice.  Here, Robert is explaining to Lady Audley that he believes that George’s disappearance is nefarious in nature and that someone is responsible for it.  A pervading sense of mystery is present in this scene, and the effect that it has on the novel’s characters is drastic.  

Throughout the novel and in this scene, characters cross numerous thresholds, literally and metaphorically.  They cross from sanity into madness (George Talboys) and from the unknown into the known (Robert piecing together George’s mysterious disappearance).  In this passage, Robert mentions the “shutting or opening of a door,” (Braddon, 123) and a “shadow on a window-blind (Braddon, 123). ”  Both of these phrases have the connotation that even the smallest actions are capable of being used as evidence to catch a criminal.  This passage ironically shows Robert simultaneously crossing two significant thresholds, into both enlightenment and adulthood.  Robert is enlightened because he comes to realize that George’s disappearance may be intentional.  He enters adulthood because it is the first time in his life that he is doing something with real meaning, rather than superficially wandering from on frivolous activity to another.  Individual words used in this passage such as “evidence,” “guilt,” “crime,” “penalty,” and “criminal” (Braddon, 123) are all related to the legal profession.  By using these words, and by making connections between mysterious events, Robert asserts himself as a professional seeking to solve a serious problem, something Robert Audley never would have done without George’s disappearance.

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