The Science of Gothic Literature

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Michael Faraday in his laboratory at the Royal Institution, London.

Like all literature, late 19th century Gothic literature is to some degree a product of its social and cultural environments. Science as a discipline had existed for some time, but had steadily evolved in study and significance, so that by the Victorian Era it was already an embedded concept. Its specific elements, as fluid and capricious as they can be, were not. Even in the modern era, one in which science touches our lives every day in countless ways, there are still those who refuse to believe current theoretical assertions, and even in the modern era science is effective in creating disruption in the reader’s mind. The 2013 film Gravity is one example. But the science of that film is a contemporary one — space exploration. Were its science 19th century chemistry, it would not have the same appeal; that is to say, in order for literature, especially of the horror genre, to maintain its ability to disorient the reader through science, its science must be up to date and challenging to the reader’s sense of status quo.

In Richard Marsh’s gothic novel The Beetle, we see the first example of science as a means of disruption in the form of chemistry. Chemistry first came to prominence as an academic discipline in the late 17th century, and by the 18th century “the chemist-apothecary was a widely respected persona” (Klein). Sydney Atherton’s preoccupation with chemicals is not unusual, nor is it ignoble. Starting in the 1820s, chemistry had begun to disconnect itself from medicine, and the expertise of practitioners like Atherton were “sought after by governments and broader society” (Klein). Atherton plans to sell his destructive chemical concoction to the government, hoping to offer them “the refusal of a new wrinkle in the art of murder” (Marsh 69). The known properties of chemistry — its power, its usefulness, its versatility — clash with its unknown potential to disrupt the reader’s sense.

Atherton is also obsessed with hypnosis, an emerging practice in the discipline of psychology. In the late 1870s, Jean-Martin Charcot “‘rehabilitated’ hypnotism by turning it into a method for studying hysteria” (Plas 92). As is often the case with pseudo-sciences, the practitioners of hypnosis were attempting to establish their legitimacy. But even Atherton, who dabbles in Mesmerism himself, counters the notion by exclaiming, “I am a scientist” after labeling the priestess a “mesmerist” (Marsh 66). 19th century psychologists like Pierre Janet were also becoming increasingly concerned with somnambulism, a phenomenon which plays a significant role in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Lucy, after taking to her old habit of “walking in her sleep” (Stoker 72), becomes morbidly ill, presumably because she has been bitten by the vampire. It is the sleepwalking that dooms her and molests her doctors, for it is her sleepwalking, in part, that thwarts their attempts to save her. In 1875 Janet “had published an article on provoked somnambulism.” Hypnotism and somnambulism, new and controversial sciences, contained for the Victorians elements of both the known and the unknown, and like chemistry, their employments as plot devices remain in the realm of verisimilitude while exciting the reader with mystery.

Most significantly in Dracula is the use of modern medicine, from which chemistry and psychology emerged. The Victorian Era was largely unhealthy; yet, “after 1870, the death rate began a continuous, though unsteady, decline” (Carpenter 11). Doctors were becoming trusted as modern scientific healers rather than superstitious medicine men of old. Our two heroes, at least regarding Lucy’s condition in the first half of the novel, are the noble and dedicated Dr. Seward and the peculiar yet indefatigable Van Helsing. They employ specific techniques and terminology of modern medicine — Van Helsing gives her a “transfusion of blood” (Stoker 113), certainly a mysterious procedure to Stoker’s 19th century audience, yet not unlikely to them either given the evolving science and presence of medicine. Regardless, it is a plot based on folktales, so elements of fantasy are mingled with elements of fact, as Van Helsing administers narcotic for the body and garlic for the soul.

One final notion of interest in the character of Van Helsing is the archetype of the doctor, which by the Victorian Era “had been romanticized in literature and art” (Carpenter 12). And indeed he is a romantic figure, with his quaint expressions and mysteries of erudition. He is furthermore the literary product of the evolution of scientific fields: “the methodology and methods of experimental physics and experimental physiology were applied to psychology. This explains why the majority of the founding fathers of modern psychology in 19th century Germany had been trained as physicists, medical doctors, and, mostly, experimental physiologists” (Sprung 366). Abraham Van Helsing, M.D., D.PH., D.LIT., etc., etc., seems to fit this description.

“It is certain that a ‘science fiction culture’ existed at the end of the 19th century” (Plas 101), and though the Gothic literature of the Victorian era is not what one would label science fiction, it does contain many elements of the genre. It is interesting to note that Terry Eagleton summarizes the cyclical nature of fiction by stating that “literature passes from myth to irony and then reverts to myth” (80). Romanticism is mythic. Gothic literature is ironic. 20th and 21st century texts seem to have returned to the mythic, and even our seemingly gothic texts contain all of the magic of fantasy, but rarely the oppositional notion of science in juxtaposition, an apparent weakness of the modern horror text relative to the Victorian. I would say an exception would be the sub-genre of zombie fiction, though its science is often more questionable than that of our long dead ancestors.

Works Cited

Carpenter, Mary Wilson. Health, Medicine, and Society in Victorian England. Santa Barbara, Calif: Praeger, 2010. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 7 Oct. 2014.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2008. Print.

Klein, Ursula. “Not a Pure Science: Chemistry in the 18th and 19th Centuries.” Science 306.5698 (2004): 981–982. Environment Index. Web. 7 Oct. 2014.

Marsh, Richard. The Beetle: A Mystery. [Auckland, N.Z.]: Floating Press, 2009. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 15 Sept. 2014.

Plas, Régine. “Psychology and Psychical Research in France Around the End of the 19th Century.” History of the Human Sciences 25.2 (2012): 91–107. SocINDEX with Full Text. Web. 7 Oct. 2014.

Sprung, Lothar. “History of Modern Psychology in Germany in 19th and 20th Century Thought and Society.” International Journal of Psychology 36.6 (2001): 364–376. Academic Search Complete. Web. 7 Oct. 2014.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula: A Norton Critical Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997. Print.

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American poet in Taipei. Linguist. Atheist. Mystic.

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