How Does The Gothic Represent Sexuality English Literature Essay

Changes in sexual mores from the middle to the end of the nineteenth century can be traced to a variety of causes: the growth of industry, and the subsequent mass migration of populations to cities; changes in class mobility and relationships; capitalism; and social and intellectual responses to these changes. These social conditions resulted in “a continuous battle over the definition of acceptable sexual behaviour within the context of changing class and power relations” (Weeks 23).

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a double narrative in which the homosocial literal text anxiously evades a homosexual subtext; this is a doubling like that of Robert Louis Stevenson who apparently led his own double life. It is a novel of disguises and secrets, secrets both vigorously pursued and vigorously hidden, unuttered secrets.

As the novel opens, Stevenson describes Mr. Utterson as, “The last good influence in the lives of downgoing men” (Stevenson 3). In Double Talk, Wayne Koestenbaum examines this particular phrase within the context of nineteenth-century usage. “The word ‘shame’, understood in the 1890’s to mean homosexuality has particular relevant to ‘going downward’, for men who go down are guilty or moral decline and fellatio. As in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which mentions illicit ‘down-going men’, the social trajectory of downfall implies a reputation ruined by homosexuality” (147).

The narrative of Jekyll and Hyde both supports and subverts cultural class, gender/sexuality beliefs. Henry Jekyll, who, combined with Edward Hyde is the novel’s queer character, acts as an anomaly in the homosocial world of British professional men. Outwardly a proper, respectable physician, Jekyll harbours certain “appetites” for “secret pleasures” (Stevenson 91), which arouse in him a “morbid sense of shame” (Stevenson 78). Jekyll, tortured by the struggle between the two incongruous aspects of his personality, believes that for him happiness lies in splitting the shameful, secret part into a separate entity: “If each, I told myself, could be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable” (Stevenson 80). To safely indulge his unnamed desires, Jekyll creates, or more accurately, released Hyde who functions as both Jekyll’s double and his disguise. Jekyll, split apart yet not entirely separate, secretly witnesses Hyde’s behaviour, which he describes as selfish, occasionally sadistic, “monstrous” but also recognises as “my vicarious depravity” (Stevenson 86).

Stevenson believed that a portion of the Victorian reading public understood his to have a sexual subtext from the point of its publication. Irving Saposnik quotes Stevenson in decidedly negative response to such readings:

Hyde was the younger of the two. He was not…Great Gods! A mere voluptuary. There is no harm in a voluptuary; and none, with my hand on my heart and in the sight of God, none – no harm whatever in what prurient fools call ‘immorality’. The harm was in Jekyll, because he was a hypocrite – not because he was fond of women; he says so himself, but people are so full of folly and inverted lust, that they can think of nothing but sexuality. (98)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is actually about Jekyll’s hypocrisy and not Hyde’s lust; people who give it a sexual reading are projecting their own “inverted lust” onto the story, and interesting choice of words in its historical connotations – at the time, many writers were using the term “inversion” to describe homosexuality and other “deviant gender behaviour” (Halperin 15-17). Behind Stevenson’s criticisms is his disdain for the mechanical reductionism of reading his representation of complex human psychology in terms of mere physical behaviours. Those mere physical behaviours should be seen as symptoms of larger, more universal and human problems. One of those more universal categories of understanding responding to such a set of problems was the creation of sexual identity in medico-juridical and cultural discourse.64 Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick outlines the necessity of homosexuality as a signifier to the construction of heteronormativity, the importance of homophobia – “homosexual panic” – in the policing of male-homosocial relationships (Between Men 89). Similarly, the authorised reading of Hyde foregrounds his importance for identifying Jekyll’s problem. What is Hyde then? According to Saposnik:

he represents the shadow side of man which civilization has striven to submerge: he is a creature of primitive sensibilities loosed upon a world bent on denying him. A reminder of the barbarism that underlies civilization, he is a necessary component of human psychology which most of us would prefer to leave unrealised (98).

If this interpretation sounds to the reader like the two-headed monster of homosexuality and homophobia emerging into Victorian consciousness from the void or repression, then we would do well to remember that the struggle between sexual and non-sexual readings of the story, with its attendant reification of late-Victorian, cultural-imperialist notions of duality, is in many ways authorised not only by the impulses of the author and the canonical critic, but by the impulses of the text itself.

After meeting Hyde, Utterson muses that he “must have secrets of his own; black secrets by the look of him; secrets compared to which Jekyll’s worst would be like sunshine” (Stevenson 21). Hyde’s “black secrets”, although unnamed, seem at least in part to be sexual and are, of course, simultaneously Henry Jekyll’s “appeties” for “secret pleasures”. Socially constructed standards of behaviour that define normality and deviance are vital when considering secrets in Jekyll and Hyde.

Vladimir Nabokov notes the observation by Steven Gwynn that the novel takes place in a world of bachelors, in a world devoid of women (at least as far as the energies of signification are concerned). Nabokov suggests two things about this phenomenon and the way that it structures the behaviour of the characters in the novel. One is that “Victorian reticence” wouldn’t allow any more specificity about the particular pleasures of Jekyll, those Hyde perverts and makes monstrous, and that Stevenson, “not wishing to bring colors into the story alien to its monkish pattern, consciously refrained from placing a painted feminine mask upon the secret pleasures in which Jekyll indulged” (194). In other words, the forces of Victorian morality, or middle-class ideology, regarding the representability of sex and sexuality in fiction serve to reinforce the shadowy nature of the representation of any “evil” in a novel about the sinning, shadow side of human personality. Both Stevenson and the middle-class, Victorian polity need the shadows and the monsters they create. Stephen D. Arata says: “[t]he novel turns the discourses centuring on degeneration, atavism, and criminality back on the professional classes that produced them, linking gentlemanliness and bourgeois virtue to various forms of depravity” (244).

Nabokov’s second point – more to the point in the current context – is that relatively harmless skirt chasing by a dirty old man would have rendered the transformation into Hyde silly (an echo of Stevenson’s earlier comment about Hyde not being “a mere voluptuary”):

…if Stevenson had gone as far as Tolstoy had in depicting the light loves of Oblonski, the French girl, the singer, the little ballerina, etc. it would have been artistically very difficult to have Jekyll-Oblonski exude a Hyde. A certain amiable, jovial, and lighthearted strain running through the pleasures of a gay blade would then have been difficult to reconcile with the medieval rising as a black scarecrow against a livid sky in the guise of Hyde.68 (194).

From his own privileged twentieth-century position, Nabokov suggests of Jekyll and Hyde that the absence of any motivating factor – “It was safer for the artist not to be specific and to leave the pleasures of Jekyll undescribed” – is an alibi, denoting “a certain weakness in the artist (194). He continues:

Hyde is called Jekyll’s protégé and his benefactor, but one may be puzzled by the implication of another epithet attached to Hyde, that of Henry Jekyll’s favorite, which sounds almost like minion. The all-male pattern that Gwynn has mentioned may suggest by a twist of thought that Jekyll’s adventures were homosexual practices so common in London behind the Victorian veil. Utterson’s first supposition is that Hyde blackmails the good doctor – and it is hard to imagine what special grounds for blackmailing would there have been in a bachelor’s consorting with ladies of light morals. Or do Utterson and Enfield suspect that Hyde is Jekyll’s illegitimate son? “Paying for the capers of his youth” is what Enfield suggests. But the difference in age as implied by the difference in their appearance does not seem to be quite sufficient for Hyde to be Jekyll’s son. Moreover, in his will Jekyll calls Hyde his “friend and benefactor”, a curious choice of words perhaps bitterly ironic but hardly referring to a son (194).

Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”, published the same year as W.R. Greg’s “Why are Women Redundant?”, offers a glimpse of a very different portrait of unmarried women and suggests that their emotional ties may in fact be more central and sustaining than marriage – even after the female characters, Laura and Lizzie, have married and become mothers. Despite the fact that Laura and Lizzie are not themselves surplus women by the conclusion of the poem, their biological sisterhood is the basis for their alternative community, a “female world of love and ritual”, to use Carol Smith-Rosenberg’s phrase, that provides emotional support and eroticism that seems to be quite set apart from middle-class marriage.

In “Goblin Market”, the vagaries of the marketplace can be deadly. Laura succumbs to the goblin cry to “come buy our orchard fruits,/Come buy, come buy” (line 1-4), and after eating the goblin fruit, soon starts to waste away. As Lizzie contemplates visiting the goblin men in order to save her sister, she recalls their young friend Jeanie, and the consequences of her illicit “coming by” to visit the goblins:

She thought of Jeanie in her grave,

Who should have been a bride;

But who for joys brides hope to have

Fell sick and died

In her gay prime. (306-310)

With its resonances about “fallen women” and the dangers of loitering, one could read this as a warning tale to young women to maintain their virginity lest they ruin their chances of becoming bourgeois wives. Women who do not heed the warning that “twilight is not good for maidens” and “loiter in the glen/In the haunts of goblin men” (144-145) also run the risk of becoming prostitutes. Leighton writes that both Laura and Lizzie “loiter and look, in a gesture that combines a Romantic hovering on the threshold of strange knowledge with the purposeful delay of the streetwalker” (236). Jeanie’s death raises a number of questions: does the poem suggest that she was, in fact, engaged, positioned to become a bride, but that her liaison with goblin men was found out, and therefore made a “respectable” marriage impossible? Lizzie’s fear that she herself might “pay too dear” (311) underscores this possibility. Or, perhaps “for joys brides hope to have” suggests not conjugal sex, but rather the institution of marriage itself: in which case one might glean that it was in fact an impending marriage that killed off Jeanie “in her gay prime”. Whether Jeanie’s death is due to pre-marital sex or an anticipated marriage, the poem suggests that the marriage market is an inhospitable and even deadly place for women.

Unwilling to sacrifice her sister to the same fate as Jeanie, Lizzie submits herself to the goblins in the hope of securing the fruit juices for her sister in a scene that is nothing short of an attempted gang rape. Although Lizzie is covered with “goblin dew”, the fact that she has not have penetrated in the encounter (she “Would not open lip from lip/ Lest they should cram a mouthful in” (431-432)) suggests that she has avoided a metaphorical sexual violation. Lizzie stages a resistance to a particular economy of desire, violence, and commodification: she refuses to succumb to the goblins’ request for a “golden lock of hair” (an explicit corporeal exchange for the goblin fruit), and she never presents the coin that she carries in her pocket on her way to the glen (presumably the medium of exchange that would mitigate such a body offering). As Angela Leighton writes: “By not paying, Lizzie tricks the market and resists not so much the fruit as the law by which the fruit turns to poison because, Rossetti seems to say, goblins made the law” (353). In other words, Lizzie’s subversion of the goblin market ensures that she will be able to transmit the fruit juices to Laura as a restorative substance because she has refused a particular model of buying, selling, and consumption.

Lizzie returns to Laura, who pines away in their cottage and hovers near the brink of death. Lizzie declares:

“Come and kiss me.

Never mind my bruises,

Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices

Squeezed from goblin fruits for you,

Goblin pulp and goblin dew.

Eat me, drink me, love me;

Laura, make much of me:

For your sake I have braved the glen

And had to do with goblin merchant men.” (466-474)

Indeed, it is Lizzie’s (erotic) intervention that saves Laura from Jeanie’s fate, and results in “life out of death” for both of the sisters: for Laura because she is saved from a seeming literal death, for Lizzie because her metaphorical death at the hands of the goblins restores life to her sister, and for both in the kind of “little death” invoked in this organsmic and even post-coital resurrection scene.

After Laura has imbibed the juices, the poem is interrupted and its pace is slowed down with: “Pleasure past and anguish past./ Is it death or is it life? Life out of death (ll. 522-524). These juxtapositions of pleasure/anguish, death/life are reminiscent of Lacan’s use of the term jouissance. Allan Sheridan, the translator of Lacan’s Écrits, notes that:

There is no adequate translation in English of this word. ‘Enjoyment’ conveys the sense, contained in jouissance, of enjoyment of rights, of property, etc. Unfortunately, in modern English, the word has lost the sexual connotations it still retains in French (Jouir is slang for ‘to come’). ‘Pleasure’, on the other hand, is pre-empted by ‘plaisir’ – and Lacan uses the two terms quite differently. ‘Pleasure’ obeys the law of homeostasis that Freud evokes in ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’, whereby, through discharge, the psyche seeks the lowest possible level of tension. ‘Jouissance’ transgresses this law and, in that respect, it is beyond that pleasure principle (x).

Sheridan’s gloss illustrates the elusive nature of the term: it signals presence and absence, pleasure and danger. Breaking down the boundaries between “self” and “other”, jouissance signals the dissolution of the self as a subject’s identity mergers with (an)other. Unsettling and destablising, jouissance is “beyond the pleasure principle” because it may also signal the death of the subject, the final disintegration of the self.

The exchange between Lizzie and Laura, presented as a sensual and consensual exchange, stands in stark contrast to Lizzie’s assault at the hands of the goblins. Lizzie’s transmission of the “goblin pulp and goblin dew” seems to resuscitate: presumably because of its consensual nature, and also because it is an exchange that remains solidly within the domestic sphere. Here they are removed from the vagaries of the marketplace, and even more specifically, from any association with the goblins who are cast as foreign, exotic, and suspect. The colonial subtext of the poem, as Richard Menke points out, is marked by “quasi-exotic goblins, citrons from the South, and [the] defense of the domestic against the foreign” (134). These characterisations stage a sort of confrontation in the poem between the concepts of “home” and “abroad”, and a very specific imperative that young women should not enter into (market and/or sexual) exchanges with “foreign” men. Menke continues to say that “[i]nsofar as the goblin men and their goods are identifiable with the foreign, they clearly threaten Lizzie and Laura, whose daily work of milking cows, cleaning house, and preparing food confirms their strong affiliation with the domestic…” (118). According to the logic of the poem, Laura’s resurrection must take place within the clearly demarcated boundaries of the sisters’ domestic sphere.

Both novels contain traces of sexuality: Jekyll and Hyde talks about secrets and ‘Goblin Market’ illustrates that a sisterly relationship can have lesbian connotations.