The Construction of Monstrosity in Victorian Gothic Literature. A Mirror of Contemporary Fears

Monster Mechanics

Bachelor Thesis, 2020

43 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Bram Stoker’s Construction ofMonstrosity in Dracula
2.1 Victorian Womanhood: The Different Types ofWomen in Dracula
2.1.1 Mina Harker: Advancement of A Stereotype
2.1.2 Lucy Westenra: A Susceptible Target for Vampirism
2.2 The Crew ofLight: An Accumulation of the Empire’s Key Components
2.3 Dracula: Reverse Colonisation by an External Degenerate

3. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Construction ofMonstrosity in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll andMr Hyde
3.1 Good versus Evil: The Duality of Human Nature
3.2 BesiegedFromWithimContaminatingtheFamiliar
3.3 The Troglodytic Other: Reflecting The British Political Unconsciousness

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited

1. Introduction

As claimed by Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species., since all living beings descended from common ancestors, man descended from apes. Over long periods of time, natural selection has been influencing the species. Darwin's findings triggered great fears about the status of the human subject. If, as he postulated, civilization was the result of a continuous process of development and a struggle against adverse circumstances, this process could also be reversed and evolution could change into degeneration (Scholz, Kulturpathologien 4). In 1871, in The Descent of Man, Darwin presented an evolutionary line of development from the ape to the atavistic stages of human development, from the so-called 'primitive races' to the culmination of civilized humanity, the English gentleman (ibid). The OED Online defines degeneration as “the falling off from ancestral or earlier excellence; declining to a lower or worse stage of being; degradation of nature” (OED Online). While evolution focuses on ever-higher forms of life and gives the process an unthinkable amount of time, degenerationism believes in a rapid and “terrible regression, a downward spiral into madness, chaos, and extinction” (Hurley 66). Heredity, in the discourse of degeneration, was not the vehicle of progress: it was an invisible source of contamination, with the infection jumping across bodies, across the generations, and manifesting itself in visible physical deformity. While the evolution from animal to human, from savage to modern, had taken place gradually, over an unthinkable span of time, degeneration was rapid and fatal (ibid).

It was believed that parents could pass down acquired characteristics to their children, allowing the next degenerate generation to inherit acquired morbidity in an exacerbated form (67).

Charles Darwin discovered a regressive, or ‘atavistic’, evolution: Within this scheme, “the atavistic plant was a throwback to a level of development through which the rest of the species had long since passed; it was, in a sense a relic, a vestige of the far-away past, a specimen of what at one time had been perfectly normal” (Kline 36). The physician and criminologist Cesare Lombroso then applied Darwin’s theory of atavism to humanity in order to explain the “existence of ‘primitive’ criminals within the populations of advanced civilizations” (37) and expressed his idea of the degenerate criminal in his work L’Uomo Delinquente.

Lombroso described the physiognomy of the criminal and phrased his theory on atavism and crime as follows:

At the sight of that skull, I seemed to see all of a sudden, lighted up as a vast plain under a flaming sky, the problem of the nature of the criminal - an atavistic being who reproduces in his person the ferocious instincts of primitive humanity and the inferior animals. Thus were explained anatomically the enormous jaws, high cheek-bones, prominent superciliary arches, solitary lines in the palms, extreme size of the orbits handle-shaped or sessile ears found in criminals, savages, and apes, insensibility to pain, extremely acute sight, tattooing, excessive idleness, love of orgies, and the irresistible craving for evil for its own sake, the desire not only to extinguish life in the victim, but to mutilate the corpse, tear its flesh, and drink its blood (Lombroso 6f.).

His studies paved the way for the science of criminal anthropology: Lombroso believed that criminals did notjust resemble animals, but were, in fact, beasts (Kline 36). He understood the born criminals as “a sudden throwback to a phylogenetically older form of life” (Lombroso as stated by Kline 37) and “a primitive race of heartless, bloodthirsty, despicable half-human beasts on the prowl in contemporary society” (45). Through measurements of the body and charts of facial angels, Lombroso pursued the clear delineation of the ‘normal’ from the pathological dimensions, proving that criminals were regressive versions of the modem human and throwbacks to ‘primitive’ ancestors (Spencer 204). To achieve this goal, Lombroso undertook measurements on a large scale, using Italian soldiers as a representative cross-section of the male population and comparing them to measurements obtained from prehistoric bone finds, surveys conducted in prisons as well as data collected on the so-called ‘primitive races’. Based on this data collection, he determined standards in order to find the misfits of society. At the end of the 19th century, Lombroso’s theories were received well in a Europe obsessed with the fear of degeneration. With his discoveries, Lombroso hoped to enable humanity to directly recognize and ostracize cases of atavism and degeneracy, hereditary criminals, and the criminally insane (Clover 44).

After the rapid dissemination of Max Nordau's widely recognized work Entartung, degeneration became the ultimate signifier of pathology (Scholz, Kulturpathologien 5). Nordau very vaguely defined degeneration as a pathological deviation from an original type, manifested by certain physical and other stigmas. The social critic believed that degenerates lack the ability to differentiate between right or wrong (Pedlar 134) and that healthy individuals must be willing to fight a “strong and resolute combat with the evil” (Nordau as stated by Hurley 77). Applying Charles Darwin’s process of natural selection, he was convinced that degenerates would eventually go extinct: “The feeble, the degenerate will perish. [They] must be abandoned to their inexorable fate. They are past cure or amelioration” (ibid). However, Nordau states, since degenerates were not actively suppressed, humanity’s recovery would take much longer (ibid). Nordau introduced the idea of a “society for Ethical Culture” (ibid), consisting of authors, doctors, judges, politicians, and professors educating society and exposing the degenerate evil to prevent the destruction of the Western civilization (ibid):

It is the sacred duty of all healthy and moral men to take part in the work of protecting and saving those who are not already too deeply diseased. Only by each individual doing his duty will it be possible to dam up the invading mental malady ... [He] must mercilessly crush under his thumb the anti-social vermin ... Such is the treatment of the disease of the age which I hold to be efficacious: Characterization of the leading degenerates as mentally diseased; unmasking and stigmatizing of their imitators as enemies to society; cautioning the public against the lies of these parasites (78).

In late Victorian England, the debates concerning degeneration quickly disseminated and bourgeois Britons suspected an omnipresent threat of degeneration not only in the East End but also in the colonies. Degeneration was not only used to characterise other races as the degenerate versions of the ‘ideal’ white race, based on the imperialistic belief in the coloniser’s racial superiority, but further to delineate an idea of internal dangers within Europe (Pick 21). Alcoholism, crime, prostitution, and suicide were considered “’social pathologies’ endangering the European races, constituting a degenerative process within them” (ibid). After the mid-century boom, Britain’s economic decline was explained away with the concept of urban degeneration: Now, Britain was compelled to recruit soldiers and work force from the new ‘subspecies’ of degenerates (Hurley 70), especially domiciled in the East of London. These degenerate citizens were assumed to be of inferior physique and moral character, alarmingly frail, sickly and undersized (Spencer 204) and hence incapable to perform hard work.

Lacking a systematic underlying theory, the discourse of degeneration was applied unscientifically on various levels of society, drawing comparisons by means of analogies and creating a connection between biological and social phenomena. Consequently, biological or anatomical features, such as large ears or a high or low forehead, could now be related to character traits and social behaviour. Anthropometric findings were deemed readable using the methodology of so-called character sciences, like phrenology and physiognomy. Victorian culture became obsessed with the idea that one could read a person’s character in hand lines, the face, and the form of the skull, making it an omnipresent feature of contemporary literature.

The faces of Gothic villains are prime examples for degenerate evil. Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde both show the implementation of the fear of degeneration in Gothic literature. As Judith Halberstam claims, “[m]onsters are meaning machines” (Halberstam 21), explaining that their bodies and behaviours function as symptoms of or a response to various cultural, historical, or political problems, including gender, class, race, nationality, and sexuality. She states that [m]onsters and the Gothic fiction that creates them are therefore technologies, narrative technologies that produce the perfect figure for negative identity. Monsters have to be everything the human is not and, in producing the negative of human, these novels make way for the invention of human as white, male, middle class, and heterosexual (22).

This paper will shed light on the different construction of monsters used by Bram Stoker in Dracula and Robert Louis Stevenson in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, mirroring contemporary fears and social circumstances: Although both monsters can be associated with the discourse of degeneration and consequently otherness and parasitism, Dracula functions as an external monster, while Hyde represents the monster from within.

2. Bram Stoker’s Construction ofMonstrositv in Dracula

In his novel Dracula, published in 1897, Stoker creates an iconic literary vampire by combining the contemporary fears of degeneration, otherness, and parasitism with the anxiety of reverse colonisation and the New Woman. This section of the paper aims to prove the existence of such fears in the novel. For this purpose, the monsters will bejuxtaposed with their respective antipodes.

2.1 Victorian Womanhood: The Different Types ofWomen in Dracula

In the late nineteenth century, gender stereotypes were particularly rigid and distinctive, imposing specific characteristics on Victorian men and women, virtually dividing them into “two different, though symbolically related, species” (Spencer 205). It was believed that women’s intellectual, physical, and moral limitations caused their difference to the opposite sex and hence their social and legal disadvantages (ibid). “In her guises of maiden, wife, and above all mother, Woman (with a capital) had been appointed the guardian of moral virtue” (ibid). As angels in the house, women were supposed to save men from their basely instincts and thereby lead them towards heaven (ibid). When Jonathan expresses his romantic, though unrealistic concept of women and his belief in their submissiveness, sweetness, and purity, he adopts this concept:

The soft moonlight soothed, and the wide expanse without gave a sense of freedom which refreshed me. I determined not to return tonight to the gloom-haunted rooms, but to sleep here, where of old ladies had sat and sung and lived sweet lives whilst their gentle breasts were sad for their menfolk away in the midst of remorseless wars (Stoker 44).

For Victorian men, a woman defying her traditional role was denying her womanhood and defying the natural order upon which society was built (Spencer 206).

This contemporary expectation was challenged by the concept of the New Woman. In 1894, this term was coined by the radical feminist novelist Sarah Grand in her article The New Aspect of the Woman Question and was thenceforth adopted by both supporters and opponents of the concept (Eltis 452). The professional woman pursued personal fulfilment and financial independence instead of marriage and motherhood (Senf 35). Further, by engaging in and even initiating sexual relationships, she explored alternatives and started discussing matters such as sexually transmitted diseases or contraception (ibid).

During the 1890s, various novelists, like Emma Frances, Olive Schreiner or Grant Allen, featured the New Woman in their work (35f.). According to Lloyd Fernando, these writers emphasised “the role of women in society, the injustices women suffered in marriage, and the feasibility of free unions as a means of accommodating sexual relationships with greater fairness to both sexes” (Fernando as stated by Senf 35). The conservative press tried to counteract this movement by calling the prevailing gender norms to mind and insisting on the allegedly “essential differences between the sexes and their consequential] separate duties” (Eltis 450).

Max Nordau went so far as to identify the New Woman as simultaneously being a symptom of and a contributor to degeneration (455). Nordau, with regards to Henrik Ibsen’s plays, condemned modem women applauding their radical heroines, denouncing them as “hysterical, nymphomaniacal, perverted in maternal instinct - recognising] their own portrait or the ideal of development of their degenerate imagination” (Nordau as stated by Eltis 455). Described as “misguided and unbecomingly manly” (452), the New Woman was perceived as a threat to the Empire, “causing a slow and torturous process of wide-sweeping cultural and biological regression” (Kline 87). When numerous women began challenging the passive and submissive stereotype imposed on them, demanding a larger role, this development provoked unprecedented anxiety and uncertainty about the fundaments of society (Eltis 450).

2.1.1 Mina Harker; Advancement of a Stereotype

“Ah, that wonderful Madam Mina! She has man’s brain - a brain that a man should have were he much gifted - and woman’s heart.” (Stoker 250)

Stoker introduces the character of Mina Harker through letters exchanged between her and Lucy Westenra. Although the reader learns that the two women have been friends since childhood, the letters evince profound differences between them. As Carol Senf observes, Lucy is a perpetual child, pampered by everyone around her. Her letters reveal a concern with social events and the rather thoughtless pursuit of her own pleasure. Mina, on the other hand, has had to take care of herself. At the beginning of the novel, she is an assistant schoolmistress, a productive and conscious member of her society; and the intelligence and capacity for independent action andjudgment which appear in these initial letters remain the predominant elements in her character throughout the novel (Senf 45).

By providing Mina with a profession and hence economic independence, Stoker creates a character who, at first glance, appears to be a New Woman.

Dracula is full of aspiring physiognomists. Bram Stoker portrays his characters with facial features reflecting their personalities and equips them with the ability to apply the concept of physiognomy in their daily lives. As Mina’s description of Van Heising shows (Stoker 194), she is well-read. Her familiarity with Nordau’s and Lombroso’s work allows her an advanced insight into the other characters and enables her to easily understand the men’s references.

Further, being a fearless woman, she travels through Europe to nurse her fiancé back to health. During herjourney, Mina keeps ajoumal she refers to as an ‘exercise book’, following the example of “lady journalists” (62), reporting her perceptions gained in interviews, conversations, and observations. Nevertheless, she does not consider herself a New Woman:

Some of the ‘New Women’ writers will some day start an idea that men and women should be allowed to see each other asleep before proposing or accepting. But I suppose the New Woman won’t condescend in future to accept; she will do the proposing herself. And a nice job she will make ofit, too! There’s some consolation in that (99f).

With this statement, Mina distances herself from the New Woman, rejecting both the sexual openness and the forwardness ofNew Women writers (Senf 36).

The male characters in Dracula think highly of her. Van Heising continually expresses his appreciation for Mina, acknowledging, for instance, the young woman’s concern for her fiancé which has nourished his hope that there are still good women left to make a man’s life happy (Stoker 197). In Jonathan’s presence, Van Heising reveals that he sees Mina as the embodiment of the ideal woman and ‘angel in the house’ with the potential to lead a man towards heaven:

She is one of God’s women, fashioned by His own hand to show us men and other women that there is a heaven where we can enter, and that its light can be here on earth. So true, so sweet, so noble, so little an egoist - and that, let me tell you, is much in this age, so sceptical and selfish (201).

Regarding her intellect, Van Heising, continues praising Mina, whom he considers to be a “pearl among women” (233): “Ah, that wonderful Madam Mina! She has man’s brain - a brain that a man should have were he much gifted - and woman’s heart” (250). Although being equipped with an intelligence that would, from a conservative point of view, be associated with the male stereotype or, more progressively, with the New Woman, Mina embraces a conventionally feminine attitude (Eltis 460). Even the sole purpose of her further studies of shorthand and train schedules is to better pursue her vocation to support her fiancé (Stoker 199). Subsequently, she settles for the passive role assigned to her by the vampire hunting men, being left in the dark, remaining in the background until her assistance is requested. Her submissive behaviour goes so far that Mina quietly complies with the men’s instructions, being sent to bed like a child, although not feeling sleepy (274).

Contrary to Max Nordau’s idea of the New Woman being both a symptom to and a contributor of degeneration (Eltis 455), Mina uses the New Woman’s advanced skill set to support the men’s fight against an actual degenerate threat symbolised by vampirism. First and foremost, Mina’s efforts to assemble the men’s diary entries and records provides a logical context, enabling the vampire hunters to capture Dracula. As Sos Eltis points out, “[i]t is Mina’s masculine-trained brain that, by deducing the Count’s return route to Transylvania, makes his arrest possible” (461). Eltis goes so far as to claim that Mina’s role not only illustrates that the New Woman’s qualities do not necessarily pose a threat to femininity, but that they actually help to express and advance it (462).

When Van Heising asks Mina if he may read her journal, she teases him with her shorthand skills, telling the reader that she “could not resist the temptation of mystifying him a bit - I suppose it is some of the taste of the original apple that remains still in our mouths”, and that she, as demurely as she could, answered “If you wish” (Stoker 195), subsequently feeling ashamed for her behaviour (196). The original apple might be seen as a reference to the tree of knowledge, her shame deriving from displaying skills that she, although being a woman, possesses, whereas Van Heising does not.

Jonathan, trapped in the castle with three female vampires, brands them as a monstrous, non-normative type of femininity: “Mina is a woman, and there is nought in common. They are devils of the Pit!” (61). In the novel, Mina represents an advancement of the pure female stereotype of the ‘angel in the house’, her virtuous conduct providing a defence against Dracula’s temptations others do not possess. Whereas Lucy remembers her encounter with Dracula as not entirely negative, Mina is horrified and disgusted. After the violation of her physical boundaries, represented by the forceful consumption of Dracula’s blood, her self­condemnation as unclean “may refer to the horrors of venereal disease or simply the horrors of moral contagion” (Senf 47).

As Kathleen Spencer observes, when stating his fiancée has nothing in common with the female vampires, Jonathan refers to Mina’s lack of evil predisposition, but neither does she share their carnality. The relationship between Jonathan and Mina might be perceived as asexual, at least Stoker includes no erotic event between the couple. Even their marriage begins with Mina nursing Jonathan back to health and thus acting more like a mother than a wife. According to Spencer, this complies with the purpose of marriage in late Victorian society: It is designed to tame the husband’s sexual impulses, wherefore the woman is assigned the task to simultaneously occupy the roles of wife and mother (Spencer 216). Women, as Richard von Krafft-Ebing claims, “if physically and mentally normal, and properly educated, [have] but little sensual desire. If it were otherwise, marriage and family life would be empty words” (Krafft-Ebing as stated by Spencer 216).

Minajoyfully empathises with the concept of motherhood and already feels her motherly instincts. Unlike the female vampires who prey on children, she emerges as a mother-figure not only to her husband, but to the whole group of vampire hunters: I felt an infinite pity for him [Arthur], and opened my arms unthinkingly. With a sob he laid his head on my shoulder, and cried like a wearied child, whilst he shook with emotion. We women have something of the mother in us that makes us rise above smaller matters when the mother-spirit is invoked; I felt this big, sorrowing man’s head resting on me, as though it were that of the baby that some day may lie on my bosom, and I stroked his hair as though he were my own child (Stoker 245).

Mina’s emotional strength often exceeds that of the men, who more than once experience hysteric breakdowns. Only after being weakened by Dracula’s attack, Mina gives in to tears (Eltis 460): “I, who have never cried on my own account, and [who] [...] never [...] shed a tear” (Stoker 274).

In essence, although Stoker equips Mina with certain aspects of the New Woman, like economic independence, resourcefulness, and intelligence, he seems to draw the line at the purpose of these characteristics. As opposed to the New Woman, who pursues personal fulfilment and financial independence instead of marriage and motherhood, Mina embraces a conventionally feminine attitude, even culminating in embodying the mother role. Nevertheless, she strives to enhance her benefit for the men and hence represents an advancement of the female stereotype. It seems as if Stoker tried to show that it is possible for modern women to combine traditional and newer aspects of womanhood without losing their femininity and gaining proper equality when creating Mina Harker, welcoming and at the same time reducing a redirected New Woman to her traditional place in the balance of power.

2.1.2 Lucy Westenra: A Susceptible Target for Vampirism

“Lucy’s eyes in form and colour; but Lucy’s eyes unclean and full of hell-fire, instead of the pure, gentle orbs we knew.” (Stevenson 225) While Mina combines positive aspects of the traditional and the progressive view of womanhood, Stoker describes Lucy quite differently. In her human form, Lucy is perceived as a paragon of “sweetness and purity” (Stoker 231) by the male characters. She is beautiful and naive and appears to be the personification of the traditional feminine and defenceless Victorian woman (Eltis 457). Not only does she require protection from the men in the novel, but also from her female friend (Stoker 116). Her first letter revolves around parties and men, showing that her major concerns are social engagements and amours (Eltis 457). After receiving three proposals, she complains in another letter to Mina “Why can’t they let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her, and save all this trouble?” (Stoker 67), implying that she is torn between succumbing to social expectations and escaping them. At first glance, her phrasing might indicate sexual independence, but Lucy’s desire is still governed by passivity (Warwick 205): her wish to be possessed by all the men that want her represents her submission to female objectification. Lucy’s question about the feasibility of a polyandric promiscuous existence reveals her sexual susceptibility (Scholz, Blutspenden - Lebensgaben 38), connecting her to this specific aspect of the New Woman of the time. Her desire will later be fulfilled symbolically in form of blood-transfusions from Arthur Holmwood, Dr Seward, Van Heising, and Quincey Morris, culminating in Van Heising calling himself a bigamist while “this so sweet maid is a polyandrist” (Stoker 187).

Her naive-lascivious femininity makes her a vulnerable target for the conversion by the forces of darkness lurking in the shadows (Scholz, Blutspenden - Lebensgaben 44). As Mina claims, “Lucy is so sweet and sensitive that she feels influences more acutely than other people do” (Stoker 97), suggesting that men and women resist vampirism by containing their sexual desires and strengthening their moral values. Dracula identifies women as the weakest link of British society and his gateway to the heart of the civilized world (Scholz, Blutspenden - Lebensgaben 44), threatening the integrity of the whole: “Your girls that you all love are mine already; and through them you and others shall yet be mine - my creatures, to do my bidding and to be my jackals when I want to feed” (Stoker 326). Here, Stoker toys with the contemporary British fear that in this time of increased immigration, good English women would lose their virtue to foreign predators. By attacking the women, Dracula jeopardises the stability of the relation between middle-class womanhood and national pride based on “quiet femininity and maternal domesticity” (Halberstam 89). Dracula’s consumption of the heroic British brotherhood’s blood running through Lucy’s veins stylises his dental penetration of English women into an attack on the ancestral or national body (Scholz, Blutspenden! .ebensgaben 43).

Lucy’s beginning transformation and her descent into moral corruption is even visible in her outer appearance. Dr Seward states, [wjhilst asleep she looked stronger, although more haggard, and her breathing was softer; her open mouth showed the pale gums drawn back from the teeth, which thus looked positively longer and sharper than usual; when she woke the softness of her eyes evidently changed the expression, for she looked her own self, although a dying one (Stoker 164).


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The Construction of Monstrosity in Victorian Gothic Literature. A Mirror of Contemporary Fears
Monster Mechanics
University of Frankfurt (Main)  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
monster, dracula, jekyll, hyde, stoker, stevenson, gothic, literature, animalistic, degenerate, degeneration, fear, colonialism, vampire, colonization, victorian, stereotype, unconscious, colonisation
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Mona Baumann (Author), 2020, The Construction of Monstrosity in Victorian Gothic Literature. A Mirror of Contemporary Fears, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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