Understanding Victorian Morality and the Occult Undertones in Black Butler (2008)
Disclaimer: This study is in reference to the anime version of Black Butler.
A friend of mine wanted me to watch the anime version of Black Butler since according to her own words, “It is bloody good.” Cranking up my Netflix, I found the series and figured that I’ll just watch one episode. Sure enough, within a week I ended up watching the entire two seasons. While I understand some fans may have their differences in opinions regarding the anime and manga versions of the series, I thought the anime version was excellent.
For those who are not aware of the plot of the series, it involves a young boy name Ciel Phantomhive, head of the Phantomhive household and business owner of the Funtom company. He performed a Faustian Contract (demon contract) with Sebastian Michaelis. As a demon butler, Sebastian is under Ciel’s command to perform certain tasks and help assist Ciel on avenging his parents’ death. Once Ciel achieves his goal, Sebastian would be able to consume his soul.
The purpose of this article is to provide a general reference of the rise of occultism and the belief system during the Victorian Era through this medium.
The revolving theme during the series clearly shows that there is an issue of compromising your morality based on your faith and relationship with others. While some of the elements of the show may be highly exaggerated, it brings down to the point of how people felt when being approached by social phenomena and their daily lives of forcing themselves not to give into their temptations. Simply put, they did not want to dance with the Devil.
At the time of Queen Victoria’s reign between 1837 – 1901, the United Kingdom was subjected to these moral views on sexual restrain, low tolerance of crime and a strict social conduct. Many of the historians can agree that the Victorian era was a time of hypocrisy. With the rise of maintaining a sense of dignity and outward appearance based on the morality system, it also brought the worst when the country was facing a high rate of prostitution and child labor that came as a result of the strict code of conduct.
The subject of Victorian morality would not be complete if there was no mention about the rise of occultism. In today’s work of fiction, the fascination of mentioning about making a pact with the Devil is probably one of the most sought after subjects in literature and media. I have to admit, the thought of having a demon butler who was very sharp, quick-witted and simply charming would be a dream come true for those who needed some “assistance” in personal matters. But I digress.
Imagine this – for a society that was so strict with their morality system, why was there an increase of people who became interested with the occult? During the end of the 19th century, there was a revolution in scientific understanding known as the “Crisis of Faith” in which it challenged religion and society’s faith to a high degree. In 1859, Charles Darwin published his work On The Origins Of Species in which his theory focused on his reasoning that the human race have survived this long because of natural selection and survival of the fittest.
A sample quote from Darwin’s work on explaining his theory:
As natural selection acts by competition, it adapts the inhabitants of each country only in relation to the degree of perfection of their associates; so that we need feel no surprise at the inhabitants of any one country, although on the ordinary view supposed to have been specially created and adapted for that country, being beaten and supplanted by the naturalised productions from another land.
This was an invitation for society to encourage people who were susceptible to religious experience by using scientific methods to answer metaphysical questions. There was no stopping to finding the answers of the unknown. Some consulted with fortune tellers and tarot cards while the other half joined the Golden Dawn which was an organization that was purely devoted to the study and practice of the occult, metaphysics, and paranormal activities.
In the case of Black Butler, Ciel was the type of person that did not believe in morality – he was simply focused on avenging the death of his parents. Ciel’s outlook in life was even more hampered as he was once a slave to cultists who subjected him to inhumane cruelties. During the course of the season, Ciel and Sebastian was on duty most of the time when solving cases that involved the murders of dead prostitutes from Jack the Ripper. As the Watchdog of the Queen, Ciel would prepare himself to resort to any dishonest measures such as bribery, provided that he will be able to retrieve the information to help solve the case as quickly as possible. As the story line progressed through the anime series, Ciel Phantomhive’s viewpoint remain unchanged. It’s no wonder that with all of the events that surrounded the young boy, it gave Ciel every reason to remain livid after witnessing the angel’s attempt to rewrite Ciel’s own history in order to purify his soul (and attempt to release the Faustian Contract with Sebastian).
The irony of Black Butler is that Sebastian had a better understanding than the rest of the humans who were fighting their differences between remaining moral and exploring the unknown. In his conversation with Ciel during Season 1, he mentions the following:
You are different from demons who are revolting and possess complex evil intent. Telling lies . . . desperately struggling, kicking down other people. Stealing the stolen, while repeating your reasons over and over. And even so, you aim for the horizon over the hills. That’s why humans are interesting.
Even with Ciel’s attempt to conform with his beliefs, Sebastian often reminded Ciel that he will always help assist his tasks until the very end towards the end of Season 1:
As long as there is the contract, I will protect your life. However, if you make a mistake of your own accord, you will possibly suffer a painful experience while alive. You already know that, don’t you? Any game becomes boring when it lacks thrills.
I am fortunate to have watched the entire two seasons of Black Butler as the storyline was very unique and engrossing. To me, it is very reminiscent of some dark tones that were highlighted in another favorite of mine which is Batman. I’ve watched other horror anime series such as Hellsing, Vampire Hunter D and Deathnote, but this series takes the cake in terms of focusing the aspects on what it was like to live in the Victorian Era and their struggle on overcoming supernatural battles.
It was simply one hell of a good show.
What do you think? Leave a comment.