Monster in british literature essay

Monster in British Literature Essay
“The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”
Hardly anything can provide people with better insight on the very essence of
gothic motifs in British literature, then the reading of Robert Louis Stevenson
“The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and Mary Shelley’s
“Frankenstein”, because these novels represent the concept of monstrosity as
three dimensional existential phenomenon, which actually derives out of notions
of good and evil been fused together into one inseparable amalgam. Moreover,
both novel actually promote the idea that monstrosity cannot be discussed
outside of its physical emanations – whatever is ugly on the outside, must
necessarily be ugly on the inside. In its turn, such novels’ interpretation of
monstrosity, unmistakably points out at its Victorian origins, because it is namely
during the course of Victorian era, that the concept of human nature’s duality
became especially popular among British romantisists.
In “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, Stevenson describes the
possible consequences of “good” and “evil” components, within man’s psyche,
being separated by scientific means. When Dr. Jekyll drinks his potion, he
becomes completely transformed into entirely new being – Mr. Hyde, solely
committed to perpetrating socially-inappropriate acts, which are being revealed to
the readers as sublimation of Jekyll subconscious anxieties. Stevenson
describes Mr. Hyde as bearing clearly atavistic anthropological features, which
according to the theory of Positivist Criminology, serves as indication of “atavistic
individual’s” inborn tendency to commit crimes: “Mr. Hyde was pale and dwarfish,
he gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation, he had
a displeasing smile… God bless me, the man seems hardly human!” (Stevenson,
Ch. 2).
Such description of Hyde’s inborn evilness corresponds rather well to how
Victorian mind used to perceive the essence of monstrosity – it is only those, who
despite their human-like appearance, have nothing to do with civilized (Western)
humanity, that can be referred to as truly horrible creatures. Mr. Hyde is being
shown as the slave of his animalist urges. He kills to experience a sadistic
pleasure. His actions correspond more to the actions of a wild beast then to the
actions of a human being, capable of adjusting its behavior to its sense of
rationale. Such Stevenson’s perception of monstrosity, of course, is a by-product
of Victorian concept of “White man’s burden”, which implied that White people
have a natural right to rule over the world, simply because the representatives of
other races can only be formally referred to as humans, since they never ceased
remaining savage beasts, deep inside.
The very sight of primitive savages, which were never able to evolve beyond the
Stone Age, encountered by European explorers and colonists throughout the
world, was psychologically damaging, because by observing these savages,
civilized Europeans were being reminded of their own deep seated bestiality and
consequentially dismayed – the rational mind becomes horrified while being
exposed to whatever cannot be rationalized. It is not by a mere accident that the
word “strange” is being prominently incorporated into the name of Stevenson’s
novel – Victorian mentality perceived the notion of “strangeness” as the synonym
to the notion of “bestiality”. Dr. Jekyll succumbs to his own innate bestiality, which
is why, while never ceasing to be regarded as one of the first European horror
stories, Stevenson’s novel also contains many literary undertones, associated
with the genre of tragedy. In his article “Monster in the Mirror”, Patrick McCormick
says: “Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde is a tragic tale in which the hypocritical
“gentleman” Henry Jekyll is ultimately destroyed by the ghoulish inner beast he
has unleashed on the streets of London” (McCormick 42).
Virtually the same motifs are also being exploited in Shelley’s novel
“Frankenstein” – even though that the Monster has a human-like appearance and
despite the fact that he can even feel and rationalize, he is nothing but a pitiful
and horrifying parody of a man: “Oh! No mortal could support the horror of that
countenance (Monster)… I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then,
but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a
thing such as even Dante could not have conceived” (Shelley, Ch. 5). Just as
Stevenson, Shelley directly associates the unsightly physical features of her
“monster” with his lack of humanity. The horror consists in the fact that Monster
lives (he is being undead), despite the fact that his existence contradicts the laws
of nature. In its turn, such novel’s ideological context points out to the fact that it
could only be written in time when rationalizing the very essence of the concept
of humanity, was not the subject of public taboo, as it is the case now, simply
because in 19th century, the pace of scientific progress was not being affected by
considerations of political correctness.
Therefore, it is wrong to refer to Shelley’s depiction of how Monster was created,
as such that subtly promotes the idea that “science is dangerous”, as it is being
commonly suggested nowadays. Monster came into being as the result of
unsuccessful scientific experiment, on the part of Frankenstein, but this is what
science is all about – even unsuccessful empirical experiments bring scientists
closer to their original goals. Throughout the novel, Frankenstein never doubts
that his experiments with reviving dead flesh were justified, even though he ends
up feeling sorry for creating the Monster: “It was the secrets of heaven and earth
that I desired to learn; and whether it was the outward substance of things or the
inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, still my
inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or in its highest sense, the physical
secrets of the world” (Shelley, Ch. 2). The reason why Frankenstein became
utterly frustrated with what he had done is because, the situation with Monster’s
creation, came out of control, due to Monster’s conviction in his own humanity
being just as hideous as his physical appearance.
Such Shelley’s representation of monstrosity leaves no doubt as to author’s eurocentric perception of surrounding reality – in late 19th century; the physiognomic
theory was especially popular among European intellectuals. Moreover, Shelley’s
interpretation of monstrosity bears the marks of geopolitical confrontation
between Britain and Germany, which began to define political realities in Europe
in 19th century. “Frankenstein” is unmistakably German name, which points out at
the fact that in her novel, Shelly strived to establish a connotation between the
concepts of “evilness” and “germaneness”. Such Shelley’s description of
monstrosity’s origins corresponds to the fact that by mid 19th century, the pace of
scientific progress in Germany started to gain a truly amazing momentum, which
eventually caused a great deal of concern among British politicians, which never
wanted to allow Germany to become a dominant political power in Europe. At the
same time, the context of Shelley’s novel implies that author never doubted the
beneficial essence of scientific progress, because at the time when she was
working on “Frankenstein”, it would never occur to people that the very principle
of scientific inquiry could be ridiculed as “overly rationalistic” and therefore “evil”.
Thus, the particularities of how monsters and monstrosity are being addressed
by 19th century British literature can be summarized as follows: 1) Monstrosity is
primarily the unnaturalness, 2) Monsters are necessarily savage beasts, even
though they might look like humans, 3) The monsters’ physical repugnancy
corresponds to their existential wickedness, 4) Monsters tend to speak with
clearly noticeable German accent.
McCormick, P. 2008. “Monster in the Mirror”. U.S. Catholic, v. 73, no. 12, pp. 423.
Shelley, M. [1831] 2008. Frankenstein. Project Gutenberg Ebook. Web.
Stevenson, R. [1886] 1994. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library. Web.

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