Gothic Fiction and the ‘Regressive Evolution’ Anxiety
Characterised by gloomy castles at midnight, dastardly villains, and shrieking heroines; the Gothic genre is recognisable and collectively loved by readers. In fact, the Gothic novel is considered to have been the first pop-culture phenomenon of the Western world. 1 Though this genre has been reimagined throughout the centuries, Victorian England and America were both particularly enamoured with the Gothic landscape.
Just as today’s readership is infatuated with the dystopian genre and its tendency to exploit current political anxieties; the Gothic genre served a similar function for those in the Victorian era. Referring to the period of time under Queen Victoria’s reign, this era spanned many decades and lasted from 1837 to 1901. As this article will explore, Gothic literature within the Victorian era did not simply produce fear through ghouls or vampires. Instead, Gothic authors exploited common societal anxieties to produce terror within readers. One such anxiety was that of regressive evolution.
This can be identified within three prominent Victorian texts: Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Each text interacts with the fear of backwards evolution — with varying degrees of subtlety — in order to create truly terrifying narratives.
Understanding the Fear
After Darwin published his Theory of Evolution in 1859, Victorians became increasingly pre-occupied with its implications. Among these worries was the idea that, if humans could evolve, humans must also be capable of devolving. Put simply, if humans could become more complex, what was stopping them from similarly becoming less complex, too? 2 This left Victorians uncertain about their very existence; the state of humankind was allegedly believed to be precarious at best, and on the verge of decay at worst. Not only this, Victorians were horrified by the simple prospect of humanity having evolved from ‘beast.’ 3
Before Darwin, though, these ideas were already in circulation. One such example is the philosopher Buffon’s 1766 article, ‘On the Degeneration of Animals.’ In the simplest form, he believed animals degenerated over time in response to migration and their assimilation into new environments. Though they were not immediately included in this theorising, humans were eventually considered to undergo the same degeneration. 4
During the nineteenth century, fears of atavism were also prolific. Atavism is a term used to describe the “recurrence or reappearance of certain ‘primitive’ traits…which presumably match those of an ancestral form.” 5 More than this, these alleged evolutionary ‘throwbacks’ were linked to crime. The Italian Criminologist, Cesare Lombroso, theorised that one was born deviant; rather than becoming deviant later in life. To him, he saw criminality as inherited and not learned. Supposedly, then, criminals were inclined to break the law due to their being an evolutionary ‘throwback’ and somehow primitive. 6 Thus, Victorians were extra fearful of regressive evolution as they were being told it was the very reason that crime was occurring.
The result of this fear, instilled in the population by some of the brightest minds at the time, was widespread xenophobia and racial prejudice. The theory of atavism, especially, suggested that criminals looked a certain way. This made it easy for Victorians to ‘Other’ groups of people; to them, it was scientifically proven. Through centuries of further scientific discovery, such theories have been disproven and rightfully deemed problematic. For this reason, a contemporary readership is unlikely to truly understand the anxieties these following texts portrayed.
These evolutionary ideas and theories have been over-simplified here for ease of reading. These brief summaries do not begin to encapsulate the inherent complexities of the topic at hand. However, they provide useful context to understand the following three works of Gothic fiction. Each text uses similar over-simplified ideas to pander to the fears of a mass audience.
‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’
Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ was first published in Graham’s Magazine in 1841. 7 It has been labelled the first modern detective story. Though this short story was published before Darwin’s theories — ruling it out as a reactionary tale — it still demonstrates that a fear of primitive beings existed.
The story follows the narrator and his friend, Dupin, as they attempt to solve a murder that has left a community utterly devastated and in shock. The injuries sustained by the two victims range from severe scratches and bruising around the neck, to gruesome decapitation. One of the women is found jammed feet-first up a chimney. After long deliberations and examination; it is deduced that that the culprit is not, in fact, a heinous man. Instead, it is an orangutan who inflicted this terror on the two female victims.
Poe builds up to this conclusion slowly and deliberately; allowing readers to reach their own horrified conclusions. The first ‘hint’ that is dropped is in the inability of anyone to discern what the killer was saying when they were outside the scene of the crime. The following quotation is Dupin’s summary of the conflicting witness testimonies:
“The Frenchman supposes it the voice of a Spaniard, and ‘might have distinguished some words had he been acquainted with the Spanish.’ The Dutchman maintains it to have been that of a Frenchman; but we find it stated that ‘not understanding French this witness was examined through an interpreter.’ The Englishman thinks it the voice of a German, and ‘does not understand German.’ The Spaniard ‘is sure’ that it was that of an Englishman, but ‘judges by the intonation’ altogether, ‘as he has no knowledge of the English.’ The Italian believes it the voice of a Russian, but ‘has never conversed with a native of Russia.’ A second Frenchman differs, moreover, with the first, and is positive that the voice was that of an Italian; but, not being cognizant of that tongue, is, like the Spaniard, ‘convinced by the intonation.'”
To add to this, the voice is described as both “shrill” and “harsh.” Dupin is quick to stress that it cannot have been the dialect of anyone outside of Europe, either. Thus, this is the first hint; unrecognisable as a human voice, the killer must be non-human. Dupin also alludes to several other non-human occurrences pertaining to the murders. The agility required to access the murder scene through the window, as the killer did, was said to have been “almost praeternatural.” Furthermore, the murderer’s lack of motive is discussed as evidence that it was not the work of an intelligent human; but rather, an unthinking beast. Additionally, the injuries sustained by the two victims required more strength than even the strongest man was capable of. The discovery of a clump of hairs clutched in the hand of the deceased was the final clue that this was not a human crime. As the narrator exclaims, “Dupin!…this hair is most unusual –this is no human hair.” Dupin introduces each of these clues slowly; giving the reader enough time to hypothesise what might have happened. A feeling of the uncanny increases with each line.
As Dupin is telling the story to the narrator, his feelings of disgust match the reader’s (or, at least, the Victorian reader’s). When the murders are described as ‘peculiar,’ the narrator’s reaction is “to shudder, without knowing why.” Moreover, an indication that the narrator is feeling something deeper than mere surface level horror is the way in which he describes his feelings. He states, “I felt a creeping of the flesh…” This demonstrates how deeply uncomfortable he is with the information he is learning; something that is likely mirrored in the readership.
By the story’s conclusion, there is definitive proof that this crime was committed by an orangutan. More unsettling for a Victorian audience, however, is just how almost-human the creature is. To begin with, the crime is assumed to have been the work of a human, implying that the creature’s actions were close enough to the actions of man to be mistaken. More than this, though, the orangutan was somewhat domesticated as it lived with a sailor. At one point, the animal attempts a very human-like procedure:
“Razor in hand, and fully lathered, it was sitting before a looking-glass, attempting the operation of shaving, in which it had no doubt previously watched its master through the key-hole of the closet.”
This human-like intelligence would have unsettled an audience already fearing this type of behaviour. This juxtaposition that Poe has created — a ‘savage’ beast that is simultaneously very human-like — directly exploits the anxiety regarding the perceived link between devolution and crime.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 Novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, tackles the fear of regressive evolution in a different manner to Poe. 8 The antagonist of the story — Mr. Hyde — is human. However, he is described in ways that allude to him potentially being an evolutionary ‘throwback.’
The story opens in a very Gothic manner; with a mysterious person having trampled a young girl’s body in the middle of the street. The idea of him being unhuman is set in motion from this point, as onlookers remark that “it wasn’t like a man; it was like some damned Juggernaut.” Thenceforth, the story revolves around discovering just who — or what — Mr. Hyde is.
Of course, by the novella’s conclusion, readers learn who Hyde is. He is the ‘evil’ side of Dr. Jekyll, an upstanding medical practitioner; associated with good. After experimenting with a drug, Jekyll found that he could turn himself into this unrecognisable man. The body and mind of Mr. Hyde became a safe space for Jekyll; they allowed him to carry out his evilest desires without tarnishing his own reputation.
The insinuations of Hyde’s primitiveness continue throughout the novella. It begins subtly; he is said to be in some way deformed, but in a manner that no one can seem to identify. In another instance, he is regarded as such:
“There is something more, if I could find a name for it. God bless me, the man seems hardly human! Something troglodytic, shall we say? or can it be the old story of Dr. Fell? or is it the mere radiance of a foul soul that thus transpires through, and transfigures, its clay continent?”
By the text’s conclusion, the primitive accusations are more overt and he is said to have “ape-like spite.” These descriptions become evermore significant when one learns of Hyde’s fate. As Jekyll recounts, when he began experimenting with the drug, he could alternate between Jekyll and Hyde whenever he consumed the elixir. It was a conscious choice. However, as time went on, he found himself waking up as Hyde, despite going to sleep as Jekyll. Shortly after, the Hyde persona begins to consume him entirely. As Jekyll explains himself, “this brief condescension to my evil finally destroyed the balance of my soul.”
Eventually, the only time he could exist as Jekyll was in the immediate aftermath of taking the drug. No longer did he transform into Hyde; he was Hyde. Jekyll became the side effect. This can be, and was by Victorians, interpreted as an example of an intelligent, modern man devolving into an ancestral form.
“The implication is that the brutal and uncivilised Hyde is somehow a reversion to a more primitive stage of human development; a ghastly evolutionary precursor who stands in a direct genetic line behind the eminently respectable Dr Jekyll.” 9
Of course, Stevenson could have selected any monster for Jekyll to transform in to; a vampire, a zombie, an apparition. Each would have provided a similarly Gothic reading experience. However, the choice to depict a devolved man was deliberate and effective. More than this, the novella sends the message that even the brightest minds — such as a doctor — are capable of regressing. Victorian readers were likely left to wonder what hope was left for everyone else.
The figure of the vampire has been used throughout literature to represent fears and anxieties. The character of Dracula, from Bram Stoker’s novel of the same name, is no different. 10 His physical appearance, his peculiar actions, and even aspects of vampire lore all allude to regressive evolution.
First published in 1897, Bram Stoker’s novel follows the story of Count Dracula — a Transylvanian vampire — as he attempts to infiltrate England. The protagonists, often referred to as the ‘Band (or Crew) of Light,’ are quintessential, ‘modern’ men and women. They are the exemplary figures of evolution; they are what Victorian society feared losing. After Dracula makes a victim of one of their friends, the Band of Light team up to defeat this source of evil.
Not only is this figure of evil a vampire — a fictitious monster — he is also representative of the evolutionary throwbacks feared by Victorians. Jonathan Harker, one of the good guys, visits Dracula in his Transylvanian home; he gets to witness the beast in his own environment. However, he does not yet know that the Count is not human. Dracula and his home are discussed as inherently old. Harker notices a collection of coins in the vampire’s house. None of which are “less than three hundred years old.” When the vampire is giving him a brief synopsis of Transylvanian historical events, Harker remarks that “he spoke as if he had been present at them all.” These allusions suggest that Dracula himself is from the past. The insinuation that the vampire is an evolutionary throwback is solidified when Harker catches him leaving his house through the window. Leaving the man aghast, he observes:
“But my very feelings changed to repulsion and terror when I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings. At first I could not believe my eyes. I thought it was some trick of the moonlight, some weird effect of shadow; but I kept looking, and it could be no delusion. I saw the fingers and toes grasp the corners of the stones, worn clear of the mortar by the stress of years, and by thus using every projection and inequality move downwards with considerable speed, just as a lizard moves along a wall.”
A mix of human and animal; Dracula appears to be a kind of ancestral form. This idea that he is a threat from the past is further demonstrated in some aspects of vampire lore. One such aspect is the need for Dracula to sleep on his native soil in order to stay alive. Thus, in travelling to England, he transported several boxes filled with Transylvanian soil with him. This is symbolic of him bringing the past into the future, as Transylvania has already been set up in the story as inherently “old-fashioned.” It is in this way that the Victorian fear is realised. Like an evolutionary throwback, Dracula is a figure of the past posing danger to the modernised present. Not only did the Band of Light need to destroy Dracula himself, they also “set out to destroy the boxes.” They were to rid modern England of any sign that Dracula had walked amongst them.
His simple existence is not the most terrifying part of the story, though. It is the impact he will have on others that would have been most concerning for readers. The fear of regressive evolution materialises in two different ways within the book; both forms allude to the idea of social degeneration. 11 The first fear involves others taking on the traits of Dracula (or a different figure seen as an evolutionary throwback). This is evident in the actions of Harker who spends time within the vampire’s home. After observing his lizard-like crawling out of the window, Harker chooses to imitate it:
“Where his body has gone why may not another body go? I have seen him myself crawl from his window. Why should not I imitate him, and go in by his window? The chances are desperate, but my need is more desperate still. I shall risk it.”
Thus, the devolved Dracula’s alleged ability to influence man’s movement away from modern and respectable behaviour is complete. Harker successfully scales the wall twice. His actions are not a once-off coincidence; it is deliberately repeated. The once quintessential Englishman is transformed through the simple act of observing Dracula.
The second fear present within the narrative of Dracula is the ability of such an ancestral form to silently assimilate into modern society. The idea here is that, these ancestral forms are too similar to the evolved human, and can therefore ‘degenerate’ England’s bloodline without detection. Indeed, Dracula becomes most terrifying to Harker when the vampire is spotted in England. Harker begins to panic at the site of the man who is mingling with a busy London crowd. But, more disconcerting is the fact that his wife Mina is unable to recognise him, “I don’t know him; who is it?” The reason this leaves Harker so panicked is because Dracula appears to be no different from those around him. The Count could live his life undetected, and as was previously mentioned, eventually sully the bloodline of England.
Both of these ideas are inherently problematic as they are linked to xenophobia. The source of anxiety is from a figure from a foreign region; the ‘thing’ worth protecting is the idea of a so-called ‘pure’ bloodline. While the present readership likely perceives this as the hateful sentiment that it is, for Victorians it was a genuine anxiety. Therefore, it makes sense that Stoker would rely heavily upon these fears of a racialised evolutionary throwback to create a truly Gothic atmosphere within his novel. Of these three texts, though, Dracula is the most hopeful. It is only within Stoker’s novel that this threat from the past can be eradicated. The figure of the devolved past ultimately proved a weak opponent for the modern human.
Terror and the Sublime
Though it is understood how Victorian Gothic writers interacted with this societal fear, it is helpful to understand why they did so too. Through preying upon commonly-felt anxieties, Victorian Gothic writers could elicit feelings of terror within readers. Rather than a momentary jump-scare; this terror leaves readers feeling dread and fear. But, curiously, it also leaves them somewhat in awe. The belief that terror was vital to the Gothic was put forth by Ann Radcliffe; a writer known as the Matriarch of the Feminine Gothic Movement. In an essay published in 1826, she explains the difference between horror and terror:
“Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them.” 12
According to Radcliffe, terror is capable of achieving an objective of the genre: the sublime. The sublime, many argue, “is experienced when overwhelming pain and terror lead to a sort of delight.” 13 Edmund Burke — a philosopher associated with the sublime — described terror as vital to achieving this feeling. This is as terror allegedly produces the strongest emotion that the human mind is able to feel. 14 This makes sense when one considers humans’ odd fascination with being spooked. The thrill of a ghost tour or a midnight screening of a scary movie are not punishment; they are sought for enjoyment. For Victorians, they sought their sense of the sublime from some terrifying Gothic fiction!
Based upon this objective, it would not have been enough for Gothic fiction to comprise of entirely isolated and wholly fictitious monsters. A vampire or an evil murderess are frightening; but, they are not likely to appear in the everyday lives of readers. To produce terror — and subsequently the sublime — writers had to prey upon the deeply-felt anxieties that already existed. Regressive evolution proved the perfect topic for Gothic fiction, as it was a fear that was felt by a widespread readership. Whether these authors themselves feared what they were writing is unclear. What is clear, however, is that they knew just how to unsettle an entire generation of readers.
A murderous orangutan, a man who can transform into an ancestral form of himself, and an antiquated vampire are certainly inspired ideas for a story intended to terrify. For a contemporary readership, these figures might only serve as a source of horror. To us, they are nothing but fantastical or unlikely beings. They may scare or spook, but it is only momentary. It would be easy for a present day audience to mock the fears that Victorian Gothic literature exhibits.
However, if one, again, considers our present day fascination with dystopian fiction, readers one hundred years from now may do the same mocking. Present within the pages of these texts are the aspects of society that are currently feared. This includes everything from complete surveillance in 1984 to the gross abuse of power in The Hunger Games. One might guess (and hope) that society will have one day moved far enough past these problems for them to seem ridiculous. Perhaps future readers will mock the society that was preoccupied with dystopia enough to write hundreds of books about it.
Through identifying this connection, it can be understood why these Gothic texts were so popular, despite their confronting subject matter. Victorians were taught to fear many things; regressive evolution is just one example. Authors like Poe, Stevenson, and Stoker only exacerbated this by making such anxieties the focal point of their popular texts. By exploiting societal anxieties, these writers were able to create terror and evoke feelings of the sublime within their widespread readership. Such ideas are broad generalisations and cannot be reflective of an entire society. However, one must conclude that these fears were prolific enough to earn themselves pride of place in at least three famous works of Gothic fiction. Victorians feared regressive evolution; proof of this can be found within the pages of their literature.
- Gray, S 2019, ‘Gothic Literature in the Eighteenth Century’, in Jeanette A. Laredo (ed.), A Guide to the Gothic, The University of North Texas Libraries, https://oen.pressbooks.pub/guidetogothic/chapter/chapter-1/. ↩
- Buzwell, G 2014, ‘Gothic fiction in the Victorian fin de siecle: mutating bodies and disturbed minds’, British Library [webpage], https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/gothic-fiction-in-the-victorian-fin-de-siecle#. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2019, ‘Evolutionary Thought Before Darwin’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [webpage], https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/evolution-before-darwin/#HistDegeSpec. ↩
- Sherlyn, Q 2020, ‘Glossary of the Gothic: Atavism’, Raynor Memorial Libraries [webpage], https://epublications.marquette.edu/gothic_atavism/. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Poe, E. A. 1841, ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’, The Poe Museum [webpage], https://www.poemuseum.org/the-murders-in-the-rue-morgue. ↩
- Stevenson, R. L. 1886, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Project Gutenberg [eBook], https://www.gutenberg.org/files/43/43-h/43-h.htm. ↩
- Buzwell, G 2014, ‘Gothic fiction in the Victorian fin de siecle’. ↩
- Stoker, B 1897, Dracula, Project Gutenberg [eBook], https://www.gutenberg.org/files/345/345-h/345-h.htm. ↩
- Burdett, C 2014, ‘Post Darwin: social Darwinism, degeneration, eugenics’, British Library [webpage], https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/post-darwin-social-darwinism-degeneration-eugenics#. ↩
- Radcliffe, A 1826, ‘On the Supernatural in Poetry’, New Monthly Magazine, vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 145-152. ↩
- The Gothic Library 2020, ‘Gothic Vocab: The Sublime’, The Gothic Library [webpage], https://www.thegothiclibrary.com/gothic-vocab-the-sublime/. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
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