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Gothic Fiction and the Separation of 'Barbaric' Past

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1837 words Published: 4th Sep 2017

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Gothic fiction challenges the separation between an apparently ‘barbaric’ past and the civilised world, showing that the two can overlap.
Gothic fiction is one of the most outstanding genres of the nineteenth century, the era of a significant societal and technological changes. These changes at that time have greatly contributed to the unique features of the gothic genre. This essay will be showing the overlap between the ‘barbaric’ past and civilised present by discussing the general overview of the nineteenth century as a developing age and how the savage past was still present in the dark corners of the civilised world, as well as, the popular idea of moral degeneration existed in the period. This essay will also investigate the novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson and the short story The Phantom Coach by Amelia Edwards.[G1][G2]

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First and foremost, gothic fiction portrays the Victorian society as an advanced period of time in both scientific field and human behaviour. It is the transferring phase between the ancient and the modern world. In this period, the scientific way of thinking replaced magic-based method of explaining. Scientific topics appeared in most gothic fictions from the story of the old scientist in the Phantom Coach to the taste of Dr. Jekyll[G3] “being rather chemical than anatomical” (Stevenson 1886, p. 32). All reflect the dominant and undeniable existence of science. Its role was so important that people “reject as false all that cannot be brought to the test of laboratory or dissecting room” (Edwards 1864, p. 4). This is a significant advancement of the Victorian society as their ideas were shaped by logical thinking and scientific developments instead of magical thinking. In the new era, they observed continuous series of new inventions in science and [G4][G5]technology which motivated them to test the nature to prove the reality. To them, an idea or a phenomenon could only be true if it could be tested in the laboratory, thus, they rejected superstitious or supernatural ideas. Moreover, there was an advancement in human behaviour and awareness in that society. In order to maintain their reputation, they had to act responsibly to their good name as can be seen here in Mr. Utterson[G6] who “enjoyed the theatre, had not crossed the doors of one for twenty years” (Stevenson 1886, p. 3). Based on their occupation and class, they had their own code of conduct which meant what kind of behaviours are accepted and suitable for their class. Characters like Dr. Jekyll, [G7]Mr. Utterson[G8] in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde[G9][G10] and the lawyer James Murray in the Phantom Coach belong to the higher class in the Victorian society. They live a decent life in a well-to-do neighbourhood and hang out with peers having the same social status. There were certain rules that they had to obey so that they could be respectable and most importantly, they could not have any desire or enjoy certain pleasures such as [G11]drinking alcohol or visiting prostitutes like people in the lower class. However, the new society was definitely not perfect, it was not entirely civilised because of some remaining factors of the past.

Despite the upward changes benefiting the society, some vicious pieces of the past still remain and hide  in the dark. The nineteenth century seemed to be civilised and developed but when taking a closer look, people might find out that the past still lingered in the dark side. Although most of the barbaric elements had already disappeared, they were not completely gone. The existence of Mr. Hyde is a typical example representing the past in London from his physical features to his behaviours. On describing his appearance, Stevenson reveals the following quotes “Mr. Hyde was pale and dwarfish, he gave an impression of deformity” (Stevenson 1886, p. 19) and he gave Mr. Utterson the feeling of “unknown disgust, loathing, and fear” ([G12]Stevenson 1886, p. 19). The description of Mr. Hyde evokes the readers a sense of villainy and his bad intention for others. His ugly features are typical to Gothic fiction’s villain. Corresponding to his outward look, his monstrous behaviours reflect himself as sinister and barbaric by the act of trampling the girl (Stevenson 1886, p. 6) and the murdering Sir Danvers Carew (Stevenson 1886, p. 28). In an advanced society, people do not use violence to discuss an issue, they use reasons and logic to solve problems. However, Mr. Hyde is not a part of the modern world but having more resemblance to the people in the past who are not fully evolved and tend to be dominated by anger and violence. He usually appeared in the dark night of London, enjoyed degrading pleasures that no gentlemen would ever do without taking into consideration his reputation. In addition, the coming back of the past is most clearly demonstrated in the Phantom Coach. Edwards (Edwards 1864, p. 7) suggests that the existence of brutal past in the modern society through the ghosts with “fiery unnatural lustre” eyes, “livid” face and “bloodless lips”. They suggest the return of the past in the civilised world. In the period when people no longer believe in supernatural stories, witnessing the corpses carriage is the most obvious evidence for James Murray about the frightening past remaining in the civilised world. They represent the terror and fright existing at dark night. The past does not mean that it has entirely extinct, it shows up when people least expect it. Behind the fanciness of the nineteenth century remaining the decaying past that is hiding in the night and waiting to come back unexpectedly.[G13]

It is the idea of degeneration that fosters the existence of the savage past in the developing society. When the society is on its way to be more developed, human behaviour, on the other hand, tends to degrade. Societal and economic advancement brings lots of benefits to the world but at the same time, it restricts human’s enjoyment. Stevenson describes Dr. Jekyll[G14] as a person who “concealed my pleasures” (Stevenson 1886, p. 73) or “had learned to dwell with pleasure, as a beloved day-dream” (Stevenson 1886, p. 75). He desires to freely enjoy his life without being restrained by the rules, nonetheless, he also wishes to keep his good name as an honourable doctor who is highly respected in the society. The stress from his responsibility and fame has put a strain on Dr. Jekyll to find a way out to [G15]have a desire for himself[G16] without negatively affecting his social status. Therefore, it leads him to create Mr. Hyde. Unfortunately, Mr. Hyde is the downgrade version of human in that period from his appearance to behaviour. Contrary to Dr. Jekyll who is described as “a tall, fine build of a man” ([G17]Stevenson 1886, p. 53), Mr. Hyde “was more of a dwarf” (Stevenson 1886, p. 53). Furthermore, his inhumane behaviours such as murdering the member of Parliament suggest that Mr. Hyde represents the idea of moral degeneration at the time. He not only arouses a sense of dissipation but his cruel personality also suggests that he is a brutal criminal belonging to the lower class. However, in fact, Mr. Hyde is actually a [G18]moneyed “gentleman” as what Mr. Enfield calls him (Stevenson 1886, p. 6). He belongs to the same class as Dr. Jekyll [G19]but he is a gentleman representing moral degeneration. Mr. Hyde[G20] is not the only symbol of degeneration; Dr. Jekyll[G21] is as well an example. Stevenson reveals that “The powers of Hyde seemed to have grown with the sickliness of Jekyll” (Stevenson 1886, p. 93). His separation from his friends, colleagues and his association with a cruel person like Mr. Hyde risks his good reputation[G22]. He also led a downward path of life both physically and morally as he isolated himself from the outside world and lived in the fear of his secret. Dr. Jekyll himself[G23] became degenerating from a respectable gentleman to a fearful person controlled by the savagery of his other personality.

In conclusion, taking into consideration the novella The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson and the short story The Phantom Coach by Amelia Edwards, it can be seen that gothic fictions demonstrate that within the modern present, the sinister past still lingers in the society and that both of them overlap each other since not one of them is completely overshadow the other.


Edwards, A. B 1864, The Phantom Coach, Retrieved September 13, 2017 from http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/PhanCoac.shtml

Stevenson, R.L 1886, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde[G24][G25], Retrieved 10 January 2016 from http://www.planetebook.com/ebooks/The-Strange-Case-of-Dr- Jekyll.pdf


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