Popular in the nineteenth century, Gothic Fictioncharacteristic of their terror and suspense inducing features positioned themas an effective mode of exploring anxieties prevalent at that time. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde byRobert Louis Stevenson are two such distinguished Gothic novels published inthe nineteenth century. Despite being from distinctly contrasting literaryeras, the juxtaposition of both these novels allow for a comprehensiveexploration of the treatment of gender and sexuality that pervades throughoutthe nineteenth century.
Both novels engage with typical traditional Gothictropes, which inherently propagates misogynistic sentiments through the silencingor othering of female characters, and by extension femininity. The Gothic modeaggravates and intensifies these prejudices through the replacement ofheterosexual marriages with homosocial male companionships and the inorganicattempt at childbirth without a biological female. Thus, this essay arguesthat, despite the initial reinforcement of misogynistic Gothic tropes, bothnovels attempt to challenge pre-existing hegemonic patriarchal ideologies ofgender and sexuality by hyperbolising the consequences of a repressivepatriarchal society through the Gothic mode; this coupled with the subversionof masculinity of the male protagonists, scrutinises and reveals theproblematic self-destructive nature of gender limitations, which is alsomanifested through the figure of the monster as a progeny of the patriarchalsociety, positioning both novels as revolutionary and progressive discourses inthe nineteenth century. Tradition Gothic tropesof feeble and passive female victims in both novels are symptomatic ofstereotypical assumptions of gender and sexuality that reflect misogynisticsentiments propagated by the patriarchal society during the nineteenth century;relegating these characters as a mere conduits for the progression of maledriven narratives. In The Encyclopedia ofthe Gothic, 2 Volume Set, Helene Meyers explains that “The othering ofwomen and, by extension, the feminine is often explored in Gothic texts; thusmisogyny…is illuminated and reinforced…through Gothic literary traditions”(2016, p.448).
This suggests that the disadvantaged positions which Gothicnarratives situate women in are in fact misogynistic forms of oppression andsubjugation carried out by hegemonic patriarchal institutions. In Frankenstein, female characters areportrayed as weak and vulnerable, evident in the scene where Agatha, Safie andFelix encounter Frankenstein’s monster. Upon the mere sight of the monster,”Agatha fainted, and Safie…rushed out of the cottage” (Shelley, 1818, p.161).
This is typical of the assumed femininity in Gothic literature, where a visualencounter of a horrific scene is enough to induce a surge of fear and horror,which often results in the fleeing or incapacitation of the female victim.Contrarily, the male figure Felix, “darts forward” and rescues his fatherwith “supernatural force” (Shelley, 1818 161). This depicts Felix’s courageousnature and emphasised strength, which is assumed to be intrinsic of his gender,characteristic of society’s perceptions of masculinity. The juxtaposition ofthe characters in this scene situates the female as the powerless other incontrast to the overpowered male figure. Similarly, in Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the female characters adopta position of weakness in a male dominated narrative. Women are scarcelyfeatured throughout the narrative, and even when they are, these charactersonly function as a medium for the reflection and manifestation of Gothichorror.
One such character is the maid that witnesses Edward Hyde commit hismurder, who “at the horror of these sights and sounds…fainted” (Stevenson,1886, p.27). The horrific intensity of the murder, characteristic of Gothicfiction, is illustrated to the reader through the reaction of the maid, depictingit as a heinous act capable of incapacitating her. This renders femalecharacters as merely a vehicle for the proliferation of Gothic horror. Apartfrom being powerless, women in Gothic literature are also voiceless andsilenced individuals, delineated through the lack of autonomy. In Frankenstein, the lack of a female voicewithin a male dominated frame narrative is most evident during Justine’s trial,where she claims, “I do not pretend that my protestations should acquit me”(Shelley, 1818, p.
92). Justine is able to vocalise herself, however within aprejudicial society her claims will not be acknowledged. The recognition of herposition as a voiceless and passive female within a patriarchal society,expounds society’s subjugation of the female as the silenced other. Similarly,in Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,the maid’s is not privileged with direct speech when recounting her story.Instead her witness account is completely narrated as a reported speech,suggesting her lack of voice, further emphasising the silencing of thefeminine, which is resultant of gender prejudices. Thus both novels highlightthe presence of misogynistic attitudes as a result of traditional Gothictropes, characteristic of the nineteenth century patriarchal society.
Suchattitudes are further intensified through the Gothic mode. Both novels magnify theGothic removal and silencing of female characters by subverting conventionalconcepts of heteronormative marriages and replacing them with controversial homosocialmale companionship, removing the need for female companionship. In thenineteenth century, the institution of heterosexual marriages is anideologically influenced cultural ideal. This is evident in Frankenstein, when Caroline states thather “firmest hopes of future happiness were placed on the prospect of Victorand Elizabeth’s union” (Shelley, 1818, p.
39). This depicts the acceptance ofheteronormative companionship as a sought after model. However, in his essay What Should Historians Do with Masculinity?,John Tosh explains that during the nineteenth century, in order to “protectthe key patriarchal institution of marriage, desire between males isinadmissible; camaraderie must remain just that” (Tosh 187). This suggests thatadherences to heteronormative ideology can occasionally function as a façade toveil controversial homosexual male companionships. In turn, this allows for theexamination of the relationship between Victor and Henry Clerval as homosocialin nature. Victor claims that Henry is his “dearest companion” (Shelley, 1818, p.
226),suggesting that he privileges his companionship with Henry over therelationship with his fiancé Elizabeth, revealing a relationship more intimatethan marriage itself. This is further illustrated in the scene immediately afterHenry’s death, where Victor “remained silent” when his father spoke of his”immediate marriage” to Elizabeth; and when asked if he had “some otherattachment”, Victor replied “none on earth” (Shelley, 1818, p.234). Victor isportrayed to be hesitant when questioned on his immediate marriage toElizabeth, hinting at a sense of uncertainty in his attitude towards marriage.
Victor’sreply to his father’s question alludes to the death of his ‘dearest companion’Henry, stating that he has no other ‘attachments’ now that Henry is dead,further uncovering the queer nature of his relationship with Henry as areplacement for heterosexual companionship. Similarly, the subversion andsubstitution of the institution of heteronormative marriages with homosocialrelationships is also prevalent throughout StrangeCase of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The most noticeable aspect of this narrativeis that, unlike Frankenstein,heteronormative marriages are non-existent throughout the novel. All the menthat appear within the narrative are bachelors, with characters such as MrUtterson being described to live in a “bachelor house” (Stevenson, 1886, p.
12).With scarcely any female characters, the novel explores the dynamics of malecompanionship as possibly homosexual in nature. In his conversation with MrUtterson, Henry Jekyll mentions that he “takes a great, a very great interestin that young man, Hyde” (Stevenson, 1886, p.25). This scene takes placebefore Hyde is revealed to the reader as the transformed version of Jekyllhimself.
In turn, this statement becomes imbued with homosexual overtones,hinting at an intimate relationship between both characters. In turn, theGothic tropes of secrecy and trangressive taboo topics expound the controversialhomoerotic desire of ‘a young man’. Furthermore, the house of Hyde is describedas “Black-Mail House” (Stevenson, 1886, p.8). This alludes to Section 11 of the’Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885′, which made gross acts of indecency, andcircuitously homosexuality, a criminal offence in Victorian England. Thisamendment is also known as ‘Blackmailer’s Charter’ as a result of the numerousaccounts of homosexuals being blackmailed in the fear of being exposed andcriminalised.
This also explains the restrained portrayal of homosocial malecompanionship in the novel, as it was a controversial issue then. As a result,Hyde’s house is conflated with homosexual connotations, further delineatinghomosexual undertones throughout the text. Thus, the replacement ofheterosexual communion with homosocial male companionship in both novels,posits the disavowal of female companionship, effectively removing agency ofwomen within the hegemonic patriarchal society. This notion is escalatedfurther through the symbolic birth of the monster in both novels. The attempt at inorganicand unnatural recreation of childbirth represents the usurping of biologicalgender roles and is symbolic of a radical eradication female agency within apatriarchal society; however the lack of a maternal figure results in amonstrous offspring, highlighting these oppressive ideologies of gender andsexuality as problematic. In Frankenstein,the creation of the monster is symbolic of childbirth. The process of creatingthe monster is described as a “painful labour” (Shelley, 1818, p.
52). Thediction of ‘labour’ possesses connotations of the natural process of givingbirth experienced by a mother, rendering Victor as a maternal figure. Also,Victor addresses the monster as “a being whom he himself had formed, andendued with life” (Shelley, 1818, p.85). This is significant as it emphasises the inorganic nature of the’childbirth’. Victor alone has achieved the feat of giving life to an offspringwithout a biological maternal partner, inherently usurping the role of themother. This effectively removes the necessity for femininity or in ahyperbolic extent, even women in society.
Similarly, in Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Jekyll’s drinking of the potionand transformation into Hyde is symbolic of childbirth. After consuming thepotion, Jekyll recounts his excruciating experience where “the most rackingpangs succeeded: a grinding in the bones, deadly nausea” (Stevenson, 1886, p.76).These symptoms eerily echo symptoms present during labour. The pain of grindingpelvic bones and vomiting are both common occurrences during childbirth,suggesting that Jekyll’s transformation into Hyde symbolically represents theinorganic birth of a child.
Furthermore, the parent-child relationship isexpounded through Jekyll’s description of himself having “more than a father’sinterest; and Hyde had more than a son’s indifference” (Stevenson, 1886, p.85).Jekyll occupies the position as the policing parental figure in relation to hisrebellious and defiant offspring, Hyde. This in turn leads to the examinationof the resultant grotesque and monstrous progeny in both narratives as failedchildbirths, which is consequential of the Gothic trope of the ‘absent mother’.Carolyn Dever notes, “the mother is constructed as an emblem of the safety,unity, and order that existed before the very dangerous chaos of the child’sGothic plot” (1998, p.24). This explores the important role of the motherwithin the Gothic narrative, as a figure of guidance and a nurturer to thechild, preventing the child from deviating towards instability and disorder.Frankenstein’s monster and Hyde are both archetypal monsters prevalentthroughout Gothic narratives, which elicit horror in the reader as a result oftheir grotesque and deformed appearances.
Frankenstein’s monster describeshimself as one who is “deformed and horrible” (Shelley, 1818, p.173), whileHyde is described to “give a strong feeling of deformity” (Stevenson, 1886, p.10).The lack of guidance and consequential deviance is manifested in their physicaldeformities, which positions them as unnatural beings, highlighting theirdeviance from human-like attributes towards monstrosity, and circuitouslydelineating their ostracisation from society. This is resultant of theunnatural birth without a maternal figure and the subsequent lack of maternalguidance after childbirth. Through the Gothic mode, these issues of genderroles can be mapped onto the narrative and magnified through processes ofterror in order to scrutinise and critique the existing societal structures.
This allows the challenging of the desire to completely eliminate thefunctional role of a woman in society, as a condition that is impossible. Thus,exposing the attempt to oppress women through misogynistic patriarchalinstitutions as unstable and problematic. This instability is further exploredthrough the subversion of gendered characteristics in both novels. The emasculation ofmale characters in both novels, through the subversion of masculinity, highlightsthe instability of socially constructed gender categories as arbitrary andfluid. In Imitation and GenderInsubordination, Judith Butler posits that heterosexual gender categoriesare construed as normative only through a “convincing act of repetition” andthat gender is “a compulsory performance…acting out of line with heterosexualnorms brings with it ostracism”(1996, p.380-381). This act of repetition can inturn be ascribed to the blatant proliferation of constructed gender normsthroughout Gothic literature, filtered through a stifling nineteenth-century patriarchalsociety; which demands conformity with socially constructed stereotypes ofmasculinity and femininity.
However, despite the inclusion of traditionalGothic stereotypes, both novels subtly react against these institutions throughthe emasculation of male characters by imbuing them with feminine traits. In Frankenstein, Victor initially adoptsthe role of a masculine hero claiming to “look upon Elizabeth as his–histo protect, love, and cherish” (Shelley, 1818, p.30), however this heroicnotion disintegrates through the progression of the narrative. Victor accumulatesblood on his hands, as he is unable to protect and prevent Elizabeth’s, or anyof the other characters’ deaths, emasculating him from his role as a masculinehero. Ironically, throughout the entire text, Victor is the character who hasto be constantly cared for as a result of his susceptibility to maladies. Hisinability to protect, coupled with his weak disposition, culminates in thescene where he faints and “fell senseless on the ground” (Shelley, 1818, p.
242)at the sight of Elizabeth’s lifeless body. This is symptomatic of the weak andvulnerable female characters as mentioned previously, positioning Victor withinthe nineteenth century’s socially constructed category of femininity, prevalentthroughout Gothic literature. In StrangeCase of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the subversion of masculinity is illustratedthrough the juxtaposition of Jekyll with Hyde’s feminine disposition. Hyde isdescribed to “weep like a woman” (Stevenson, 1886, p.
57); furthermore, theconstant attempts by the male characters to describe Hyde’s appearancepositions Hyde as a subject of the male gaze, and in turn feminises him. As thenarrative progresses, Jekyll retreats further and further into the domesticsphere of his home even being described by Poole as “confined to the house”(Stevenson, 1886, p.39), while in contrast Hyde gallivants the streets ofLondon committing crimes, occupying the public sphere. In the nineteenthcentury, the public sphere is largely associated with masculinity whereas thedomestic sphere is identified with femininity. In fact, this subversion ofmasculinity parallels the overpowering of Hyde over Jekyll; where as Hyde gainsmore power and autonomy, Jekyll increasingly retreats into confinement,affirming his femininity. The subversion of masculinity in both novelschallenges and expose the instability of gender stereotypes that arecommonplace in Gothic narratives, suggesting that gender categories are fluidand not determined by the innate attribute of biological sex; but instead aperformance in order to conform with society’s expectations and requirements.Thus, the emasculation of both male protagonists can be seen as a reactiontowards limiting gender roles in the nineteenth century.
This reaction issymbolically embodied through the character of the monster. The Gothic monster, conceivedin consequence of misogynistic ideologies of gender and sexuality, functions asan instrument for the revelation of the problematic nature of a repressivepatriarchal society in nineteenth century England. In his essay Monster Culture (Seven Theses), JefferyJerome Cohen posits that the monster “is pure culture”, “A construct andprojection…existing only to be read” (2007, p.199). Cohen is suggesting thatmonsters created within a culture and society, are inherently reflective ofsocietal ideologies and institutions. The male protagonist in both novels, whoare symbolic of patriarchal society through their affirmation ideologies ofgender and sexuality, is eventually destroyed by their own monstrous creations.This highlights the detrimental consequences that patriarchal prejudices haveon society itself, as the monsters are the embodiment of the aforementionedprejudices. The word ‘monster’ is etymologically defined as, ‘to advise or to warn’;this pedagogical function is evident in both novels.
In the closing scene of Frankenstein, the monster explains hisside of the story to Robert Walton. Having heard the unadulterated account fromthe monster, as opposed to Victor’s narrative, Walton claims that he was”touched by the expressions of the monster’s misery” (Shelley, 1818, p.273).Walton’s sympathy for the monster’s plight is mirrored in the readers as,similar to the readers, Walton is an audience to Victor’s narrative. In turn,the monster’s recount of Victor’s heartlessness positions it not just amonster, but instead an innocent product of an oppressive society. Hence,through the arousal of sympathy, the oppressive nature of society is revealedthrough the monster’s pitiful plight. In StrangeCase of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, this is achieved instead through Hyde’sviolent reaction towards the repressive society.
Hyde’s brutal assault on SirDanvers Carew, where he “broke out in a great flame of anger, stamping hisfoot, brandishing his cane, and carrying on…like a madman” (Stevenson, 1886, p.27),could be read as an allegory for the retaliation against a repressivenineteenth century society. Carew being a member of parliament is emblematic ofthe patriarchal society. Furthermore, Hyde’s use of the cane, a phallic object,as a weapon illustrates a highly symbolic scene where the patriarchal societyis attacked and eventually destroyed with its own phallocentric ideologies. Hyde’ssymbolic ‘murder’ exposes the self-destructive nature of the misogynisticpatriarchal society, resultant of its own restrictive phallocentric ideologieson gender and sexuality.
In addition, the suicide of both monsters after thedemise of their creators could further delineate the intrinsic relationshipbetween society and the monsters it creates. The monster’s reflective andpedagogical function of a problematic society is rendered unnecessary, as the repressivenessthat the figure of the monster attempts to reveal, no longer exists. Thus, thissuggests that the removal of a repressive society removes the existence ofmonsters, reaffirming the figure of the monster as a mode to expose therepressive patriarchal society; positioning both novels as revolutionarilyprogressive discourses, seeking to dismantle patriarchal institutions prevalentin nineteenth century England. In conclusion, both Frankenstein and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, establish themselves as morethan just traditional Gothic novels, which proliferate misogynisticpresumptions of gender and sexuality, common throughout Gothic literature.
Initially,both novels highlight and reinforce the prejudicial sentiments of patriarchalideology, through the depiction of weak and silenced women, however this isdone only to subsequently subvert and criticise these notions. Through theexperimental and provocative nature of the Gothic, heterosexual institutionssuch as marriage are overturned and replaced with homosocial malecompanionship. This coupled with the usurpation of the female biological role,resultant of the inorganic birth of the monsters, takes the misogynisticideologies of the repressive patriarchal society to an extreme. Theconsequential product of a monstrous progeny hints at the failure of anabsolute patriarchal society, resultant of the lack of female intervention,illustrated through the Gothic trope of the ‘absent mother’. Both novels pushthis notion further by subverting the masculinity of the male protagonists soas to further depict the instability of the patriarchal society.
The eventualdeath of the male protagonists and their creation expounds the self-destructivequalities of restrictive ideologies, which in turn leads to the question, whoare the real monsters? The repressive patriarchal society of the nineteenthcentury or their progeny they claim as monsters?