The Function of Space in Victorian Gothic Literature. Use of spatiality by Oscar Wilde and Robert L. Stevenson.

Seminar Paper, 2015
21 Pages, Grade: 1.3


Table of Contents

1 Introduction ... 1

2 The threshold as a liminal space between good and evil ... 2
2.1 The evil crosses the border – characters and their mobility ... 3
2.2 Doors and windows – literal and metaphorical thresholds ... 4

3 The city as an important space in Victorian Gothic fiction ... 6
3.1 The Victorian society – an important issue for Gothic writers ... 7
3.2 East and West – the ambiguous Victorian London ... 9

4 The Gothic house as breeding ground for the evil ... 12
4.1 Face and atmosphere of houses – indicators of good and evil? ... 13
4.2 Realms of evil inside the house – Dorian Gray's attic and Dr. Jekyll's cabinet ... 15

5 Conclusion ... 16

6 Bibliography ... 18
6.1 Primary Literature ... 18
6.2 Secondary Literature ... 19

1 Introduction

A story's setting is an important factor for each literary work. Together with the story time it provides on the one hand a framework for the plot, on the other hand the space around which characters can move more or less freely throughout the story. Literal spaces represent the interaction of different factors, that all characterize the space: among these of course typical place descriptions like nature or architecture of buildings, but also abstract concepts like the weather, light and darkness or countless sensory impressions that a special place can offer, and of course life – human and non-human – that colonizes the space. Literary spaces, however, do not only function as places for actions and happenings but are functionalized in different ways. One purpose of space, that is especially important for Gothic fiction, is to set the mood of the story, which also implies to capture the fears and issues of the respective time and use them to create a certain atmosphere around the plot. During the Victorian era, issues like sciences, especially psychology and the human psyche, were omnipresent. But also urbanisation and thus the metropolis and what may hide in the jungle of houses and streets aroused the fear of many Victorians. Due to this fact, and because of its demography and its great socio-political issues, London is a perfect and likewise popular setting for Victorian Gothic stories. Also Oscar Wilde and a few years later Robert Louis Stevenson chose the metropolis for their Gothic novels The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde1.

This paper deals with the use of different spaces in these two Victorian Gothic stories and compares important places, houses and their meaning for the respective plots. Besides the city of London, which is the common overall setting of both novels and will be discussed in chapter 3, the paper focuses on the house as a traditional space for Gothic fiction and one of the elements that both texts have in common. Preliminary, the character and meaning of the literal and metaphorical threshold will be made a subject of discussion.

2 The threshold as a liminal space between good and evil

According to Manuel Aguirre in Geometries of Terror: Numinous Spaces in Gothic, Horror and Science Fiction, one can divide the overall setting of a Gothic narrative into two zones, which are dominated by different powers; “on the one hand, the human domain of rationality and intelligible events; on the other hand, the world of the sublime, terrifying, chaotic.”2 In this paper, these two zones are going to be referred to as the good and the evil sphere, or the realm of good respectively evil. The contact zone between these to zones, in this paper referred to as the threshold, can be regarded as an important space on its own and is certainly, apart from the city (see chapter 3), one of the most ambivalent spaces of Gothic fiction since it does not only connect but also separate the two spheres and thus functions as a boundary and at the same time as a connection, a space that makes it possible to move from one sphere to the other. For Peter Messent, the threshold is furthermore “predominantly associated with provisionality, instability [and] intermediate forms.”3 This is first of all true for a bridge, which is a typical threshold, but also for doors, especially wooden doors of old houses or castles. Apart from bridges, doors and of course windows, almost every other narrative space can function as a threshold, too. In Jekyll and Hyde one has for example to take into account the spaces around Jekyll's mansion: the yard that separates the two parts of Dr. Jekyll's house, and the court in front of it, that connects the house with the street and therefore the city. The atmosphere of the latter is as ambiguous as the threshold itself, but rather gloomy. It “was very cool and a little damp, and full of premature twilight, although the sky […] was still bright with sunset.”4 The mentioned yard on Jekyll's premises used to be a garden in earlier times, but seems to be neglected and not beautiful anymore. Therefore, both of these liminal spaces support Aguirre's position that a distinction between a realm of evil and the threshold that defines its boundary “may be an equivocal, if not a spurious one: for the threshold […] is already that which it delineates and isolates, and becomes what it defines”5, which means the threshold is much more a part of the evil sphere than of the good sphere.

The following chapters provide an analysis of some characters in the two literature examples, their mobility and how they use thresholds. Furthermore, one chapter takes a closer look at two special kind of thresholds: doors and windows.

2.1 The evil crosses the border – characters and their mobility

Thresholds would not have a true function, if it was not possible for some of the characters to cross them. According to Yuri Lotman “characters can be divided into mobile ones who are free to move about the plot-space […] and immobile ones who are in fact functions of that space.”6 The protagonists of the two given works are clearly mobile characters. In case of Dorian Gray one can link the character's mobility to his movement around the city, from the shiny West End to the dark East End. This movement, however, will be discussed more closely in chapter 3.

For Jekyll and Hyde one has to consider both title characters individually, as they do not follow the same way. From the very beginning, Hyde belongs clearly to the evil sphere. He lives at the margin of the city, is thus located close to a literal threshold and, beyond that, does not belong to the centre of society. Also his entrance to Jekyll's house, which will be discussed in chapter 4, is at first exclusively the back door, and he does not cross the border from Jekyll's cabinet or laboratory to the public space of the house until he gains more strength and is able to take over the entire house. Furthermore, Hyde's ape-like outward experience provides evidence that he is a kind of evil border crosser, as those often show “displaying characteristics of more than one species […] They are neither one thing not the other. Their bodies are chaotic, incapable of complete definition, and, thus, resistant to our complete understanding or control.”7 Throughout the story, Hyde becomes more and more mobile and takes over the good sphere completely by the end. This is demonstrated by the loss of control Jekyll has over his evil alter ego. First, Hyde emerges only at fix places – preferably the cabinet and the house in Soho – and only when Jekyll wants him to appear. Later, this happens whenever Hyde intends to and at each possible place, whether it is on the street or in Jekyll's own bed. But in the end, Hyde does not belong to this sphere and is not able to exist there.

While Hyde becomes more and more mobile, Dr. Henry Jekyll takes the other way round and loses his mobility more and more. Jekyll chooses to become a border crosser on his own by taking the drugs that turn him into Mr. Hyde, but he has probably never intended to eventually stay at the realm of evil. This, however, is what happens to him. He loses the connection to his friends and his complete social environment, spends more and more time at his cabinet, in the end even sleeps there. A clear evidence, that Jekyll is not able to cross the threshold anymore, is provided by the happening at the window. Here, the window functions as literal threshold between Jekyll and the outside, but can also be regarded metaphorically as the threshold between good and evil. Jekyll is able to look through, perceives what is outside but has no chance to go as Utterson and Enfield ask him to do.

2.2 Doors and windows – literal and metaphorical thresholds

Windows and even more doors are, besides bridges, certainly the most literal, but also the most ambivalent thresholds in literature. They are symbols for mobility on the one hand, as they enable characters to cross borders, but on the other hand, a closed door or window can also function as barrier, which prevents characters from entering or leaving. In this case, the space beyond the threshold is ambiguous, too, as it can provide shelter for the characters inside but also imprison them.

The question whether a door or a window is open or closed is more of importance in The Picture of Dorian Gray than the thresholds themselves. There is no particular door or window that plays a special role, but one can find these open and closed thresholds spread all over the plot and used in different ways. The doors and windows in Dorian's house often refer to the protagonist's mental disposition and give hints about his border crossing. Hence, the first time Dorian recognizes an alternation of his portrait is when he just goes through a door. Combining these two parallel happenings, one can realize this moment as a first indication of Dorian passing the threshold to the realm of evil. The day after, he takes his breakfast close to the open window and therefore close to an open threshold between what is going on inside the house and the public, social life outside. From then on, there are almost exclusively closed doors in the house, with Dorian and his portrait inside. One can see that as evidence for his beginning immobility, that bounds him to the portrait and thus to the evil sphere. One door that has been closed for years and which Dorian never leaves open – similar to Dr. Jekyll's cabinet door – is the door to the attic. As the attic is a symbol for the dark part of Dorian's soul, this closed door shows how he locks his evil side away from public eyes.

More than in The Picture of Dorian Gray, the importance of these special thresholds for Victorian Gothic literature is particularly made clear in Jekyll and Hyde, which Catherine O. Frank entitles “the story of a door, or several doors.”8 The most important one for the story is, of course, the back door to Jekyll's house, after which the first chapter is even titled. But not only the importance, also the fact that it has something to do with the evil sphere becomes quite clear right from the beginning. The door is on a lower story, which means you have to go literally down to go through the door, just to end up in a cellar, a room at the margin of the house, connected with hidden evil happenings and things in the darkness. Besides that, the door has “neither bell nor knocker”9, which means no one can enter the house without a key, there is no way to invite yourself into it. This again makes it a threshold for evil creatures as they must be invited, in this case have a key, to be able to enter. Also by the plot the door is connected with evil from the beginning. The first happening the reader learns about is the incident with Hyde and the little girl in front of the door. And apparently, the place does not only have a strong connection with Hyde as the personified evil, but does also affect the people on the street, since Enfield tells about “a circle of such hateful faces”10 and a strange “desire to kill”11 among the crowd.

But there are also other thresholds in the form of doors that play an important role in Jekyll and Hyde. One interesting factor is not the literal but the metaphorical, internal threshold between Jekyll's good and evil side – or, in other words, between his public social self with the great reputation and the mad inner self he hides. Jekyll himself talks about this threshold towards Mr. Utterson as he says “my door is often shut even to you”12 and by that refers not only to the literal door of his house but also the door to his soul, which stays closed for his friend to keep the evil part of it hidden. Later, in his letter to Mr. Utterson, Jekyll takes the metaphor up again with the confession that “the drug […] shook the doors of the prison-house of my disposition.”13 The most important door inside Jekyll's house is the – almost always locked – door to the cabinet, which again functions in a literal and a metaphorical way as threshold, as it does not only separate the two parts of the house but also stands for a borderline between the doctor's two part of the soul, and therefore his social and private self.


1 For reasons of clarity, the story will be referred to as Jekyll and Hyde throughout this paper.

2 Aguirre. 2008. p. 2

3 Messent. 2000. p. 23

4 Stevenson. 2003 [1886]. p. 38

5 Aguirre. 2008. p. 5

6 Lotman. 1990. p. 157

7 Nuzum. 2004. p. 207

8 Frank. 2010. p. 215

9 Stevenson. 2003 [1886]. p. 6

10 Ibid. p. 8

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid. p. 36

13 Ibid. p. 65

Excerpt out of 21 pages


The Function of Space in Victorian Gothic Literature. Use of spatiality by Oscar Wilde and Robert L. Stevenson.
University of Bonn  (Institut für Anglistik, Amerikanistik und Keltologie)
Victorian Literature an Culture
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ISBN (Book)
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spatiality, oscar, wilde, robert, stevenson, function, space, victorian, gothic, literature
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BA Nicole Eismann (Author), 2015, The Function of Space in Victorian Gothic Literature. Use of spatiality by Oscar Wilde and Robert L. Stevenson., Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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