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Compare and contrast the presentation and development of the gothic genre, over the past hundred or so years
“If he be Mr Hyde … I shall be Mr Seek.” It is on this idea of searching or being obsessed with unknown or supernatural that Stevenson’s novel Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde concentrates. Obsession with knowledge, or the unknown, is illustrated quite vividly in both nineteenth and twentieth century gothic literature. Another piece of gothic literature from the nineteenth century, Frankenstein, shows an obsession again on which the novel is centred, this is “to examine the causes of life.” In the twentieth century story, The Company of Wolves, the obsession is totally opposite.
It shows the passionate way in which the supernatural strives to carry out its desires, “Carnivore incarnate, only immaculate flesh appeases him.” This just goes to show how the time in which a gothic story is written affects the story itself. The main points which build up the gothic genre, such as the setting, the atmosphere, religious and sexual imagery, obsessions, victims, the supernatural, death, decay, doubling and the classic fight between good and evil, are portrayed differently according to when and where the story or novel was written. Yet even novels written a hundred years apart can have similarities. It is on these two observations that I commence my essay.
The setting of the novels is the first point I’d like to think about. The first of the nineteenth century novels, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, is set in, “a sinister block of building,” which is the abode of one of the main characters. It is a blemish upon the street that “shone out in contrast to its dingy neighbourhood.” In the novel Frankenstein, the creation of Frankenstein’s monster takes place in, ” a solitary chamber … at the top of the house … separated from all other apartments.” The Company of Wolves however is set in, “the woods by night.” Whereas the nineteenth century gothic literature is set in urban settings this is set in, “a region of mountain and forest,” this is due to the socio-historic settings, which will be explained, in the next paragraph. And yet there is still a sense of isolation, a sense of being secluded from the rest of the world. This has been conveyed in both an urban and country setting. The nineteenth century seclusion was one of mind and spirit, whereas the twentieth century isolation is more a physical matter to do with barriers of nature.
My second topic is the socio-historic setting of the novels. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Frankenstein, and Tales of Mystery and Imagination were all written at a time when the British Empire was booming, and when the respectable middle-class white Christian male was the role model for society. Yet the truth was that this respectable man secretly visited prostitutes, drunk heavily and took various narcotics. In many gothic novel of this period the notion of this white supremacy is questioned. This idea of Stevenson’s that, “man is not truly one, but truly two,” is quite revolutionary, and Shelley’s idea that man could have the, “ability to give life to an animal as complex and as wonderful as man,” is challenging the Biblical view that “God created man in his own image,” and that only God can take and bestow life. So both novels challenge popular views of the time and they both talk of science as strange and mystifying.
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde shows the danger of unleashing science by saying, “My devil had been long caged, he came out roaring,” and Frankenstein shows how knowledge can lead you, “to your destruction and infallible misery.” It was after the sexual revolution of the sixties that writers could refer to sex openly in their work. Carter makes references to sex in many places, such as, “she ripped off his shirt for him and flung it into the fire, in the fiery wake of her own discarded clothing.” Carter uses the supernatural, “ghosts, hobgoblins, ogres that grill babies upon gridirons, witches that fatten their captives for cannibal tables, the wolf … he cannot listen to reason,” to scare a generation who regard science as familiar and superstition, religion and God as mysterious topics. In the twentieth century science is used to explain everything, but even science can explain the inexplicable and supernatural.
This brings me swiftly onto my third point, religious and sexual imagery. In the nineteenth century gothic novels but there are many references to religion. In Frankenstein, man replaces God and becomes the creator. But, he creates a monster whose, “unearthly ugliness rendered it almost too horrible for human eyes.” “You, my creator, detest and spurn me,” this describes how Frankenstein couldn’t tolerate the ugliness of his creation. “I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel,” this shows Frankenstein and his monster in comparison with God and the devil. The fight between them is shown as that between good and evil. In Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Dr Jekyll tries to be a good Christian: “Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures,” this describes how Jekyll suppressed his inner feelings to appease society.
“My devil had been long caged, he came out roaring,” this describes how Jekyll’s inner feelings came out in the form of Mr Hyde. Yet as in Frankenstein, the monster, Mr Hyde, “gave an impression of deformity,” again relating back to the devil, and how physical deformity represents mental deformity in nineteenth century texts. Then in the end Jekyll sacrifices himself to stop Hyde, “I bring the life of that unhappy Henry Jekyll to an end,” he acts almost like a martyr.
The Company of Wolves contains imagery of both types at every corner. The first imagery we meet is where the wolves are described as, “grey members of a congregation of nightmare,” almost as if they were worshipping Satan. “This wolf had eaten up a mad old man who used to… sing to Jesus all day,” this shows how even though the man was pious and pure from the outside he was still impure of his thoughts. Then we come to this quote, “You can hurl your Bible at him … but it won’t do any good,” it shows how those who are impure do not even have God to protect them against evil. The twentieth century literature uses much more physical religious imagery than the nineteenth century literature that uses much more subtle references.
There are no references to sex in the nineteenth century novels; the twentieth century gothic text is distinguished by its references to sex, which gothic literature from any other century doesn’t contain. Only the virgin’s, “immaculate flesh appeases him.” It shows how it is only the girl’s, “untouched integument of flesh,” that stops her from being eaten by the wolf. The wolf with his, “huge genitals,” and the girl, “an unbroken egg,” carry out, “a savage marriage ceremony.” This much sexual imagery is the point that gives twentieth century gothic literature its identity.
Doubling is another main feature of gothic literature. This element is very apparent in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The idea that, “man is not truly one, but truly two,” is demonstrated quite literarily in the novel. It shows Jekyll an ‘upright citizen’ turn into, “Edward Hyde, alone, in the ranks of mankind … pure evil.” In Frankenstein the once virtuous monster changes to a murdering wreck. “I was benevolent; my soul glowed with love and humanity,” says the monster while describing his first emotions towards his fellow creatures. “If the multitude of mankind knew of my existence, they would … arm themselves for my destruction,” the monster speaks of why he turned to murdering and he says himself, “I am a wretch. I have murdered the lovely and the helpless.”
Frankenstein shows how a monster once loving and kind turned miserable and wretched due to the spurns of mankind. Yet twentieth century novels have a more physical element of doubling and use it as a less dramatic affect. Whereas the nineteenth century novels are centred on this particular point the twentieth century story plays more on fears of the supernatural. But there is a point where doubling is used. The wolf mimics the grandmother, to get at the granddaughter. “Who’s there, he quavers in granny’s antique falsetto,” this shows how the wolf will do anything even pretend to be a grandmother to get at the, “immaculate flesh,” of the young girl. I think that twentieth century gothic novels do not do the art of doubling justice.
I have thoroughly enjoyed analysing and scrutinising the literature of the past century, and I have seen in many places how time can mould and shape gothic literature. The socio-historic settings dictate what path a gothic story or novel will take. I was intrigued by how both novels used and presented each of the main pillars of the gothic genre, there were variations and similarities in the setting, the atmosphere, obsessions, religious and sexual imagery, victims, the supernatural, death, the battle between God and the devil or truth and falsehood, decay, and doubling. I loved how the nineteenth century novels defied the popular views of their time, and how the twentieth century story applied to the time at which I’m now living.
I preferred reading the twentieth century story as it played on my own fears and applied to my life, even though the nineteenth century literature was riveting it didn’t not play on my fears as much as the twentieth story. It is truly the socio-historic settings of a gothic novel that’s governs whether it contains sexual or religious imagery and whether it plays on fears of modernisation or the supernatural or just the unnatural. But my most favourite quotation was from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It was, “man is not truly one, but truly two.” I liked this quotation because I feel it to be the truth and I can relate to it. Each century adds its own unique flavour to gothic literature.