The Island Of Doctor Moreau
“The Island of Doctor Moreau must be one of the most unpleasant books to read in world literature.” (Michael Fried)
Comment on the degree to which Gothic texts can disturb the reader, with reference to two or more texts.
Michael Fried’s reaction to H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) is an emphatic, but hardly unique response to a novel that may be considered to have been written in the Gothic tradition. A century before the publication of Wells’ novel, Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796) had attracted the opprobrium of a number of journals and reviews, not least The British Critic, which recoiled from the novel’s depiction of “.lust, murder, incest and every atrocity that can disgrace human nature, brought together without the apology of probability, or even possibility for their introduction” (cited in Lewis Introduction vii) . Evidently, there exists within Gothic literature something that has the potential to disturb, horrify and even outrage the reader. In order to examine precisely what it is that produces this reaction, and to what degree, it is necessary to briefly clarify what is meant by ‘Gothic’ literature, since the word has become, to some extent, a catch-all term applied to genres as diverse as science-fiction and Bildungsroman , as well as being pre-empted or appropriated by movements in music, architecture and youth culture.
Despite earlier emergences, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) is usually cited as the progenitor of the Gothic novel. It was a bloody and barbarous tale of villainy and the supernatural set in the medieval age, and written with the express purpose of terrifying its readership. It succeeded, due to its narrative of dripping stone walls in uninhabited castles and of ivy-clad monastery ruins by moonlight.of footsteps creaking upon staircases and fingers tapping at casements, of howlings and shriekings, groanings and scuttlings and the clanking of chains, of hooded monks and headless horsemen, swirling mists and sudden winds. (Hill 19).
The fact that Susan Hill is able to recognisably cite all of Walpole’s props and paraphernalia in The Woman in Black (1983), written over two hundred years later, points up one of the extraordinary paradoxes of Gothic fiction, germane to understanding the reaction it provokes in its readership: it is at once writing of the excessive, remote and outré, and a tradition with a highly conventional structure (more often than not involving a framing device, such as letters or interwoven narratives), mise-en-scène and cast of characters. It is able to treat horrific, disturbing and unbearable human experience, whilst often having an air of the reassuringly predictable, even hackneyed: “the whole apparatus, in fact, that has kept the cinema and much third-rate fiction going for years” (Cuddon 382). The simple truth is that it is almost impossible to place parameters on the Gothic canon: it is not an isolated phenomenon but embraces traditional ballads and folklore, Jacobean tragedy, the Sturm und Drang movement, and even the sentimental novelists. There is undoubtedly something profoundly disturbing to notions of conventional composition and originality in the Gothic’s wilful drawing of attention to its own piecemeal construction. Reinforced by this is the notorious reconstruction and revision of their novels undertaken by early Gothic authors such as William Godwin in Caleb Williams (1794) and Mary Shelley in Frankenstein (1818) , whose own novel takes on the qualities of the monster fashioned within it:
Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of a void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded; it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself. (Shelley 1831 Preface 8).
At its most extreme, this mass of ‘substances’ can appear as a series of framed, conventional tableaux, rather than a fluid narrative. Given this incoherence, and lack of aesthetic unity, the Gothic novel can seem contradictory and unsure as to its own direction, making it a reaction against reason, order and rationalism. These are the basis of civilised human existence; to remove them is to induce fear.
In the age of Walpole , the Gothic novel was worrisomely subversive, since it encouraged very close identification between reader and character, and critics perceived this as indulging an atavistic and amoral imagination with the potential to become a subversive social force. More so even than undermining reason, the Gothic novel can fragment identity: it aims not necessarily to portray a character but to generate a feeling in the reader by placing the character in a suspense-filled situation. The fact that the characters inhabited an imaginary world detached, at least in part, from social order and morality, be that Caleb Williams’ “remote county of England” (Godwin Volume I Chapter I p.3), Frankenstein’s “part of the world never before visited.a land never before imprinted by the foot of man” (Shelley 1818 Volume I Letter I p.6) or even The Woman in Black’s anonymous county of “—shire” (Hill 29), made the genre even more threatening. Time and spatial dimensions – particularly in those novels that use epistolatory techniques – are distorted within the Gothic novel. Once these ultimate arbiters of human action become unreliable, the sense of unease and uncertainty are heightened.
The Monk, with which The British Critic took issue, was something of a radical Gothic novel in that it took the stereotypes of earlier Gothic literature and distorted them: its moral scheme is blatantly topsy-turvy, since virtuous women, for example, go largely unrewarded, whilst the parricide Marguerite is unpunished; the whole novel parades a code of morals absolutely antithetical to that expected by the reader, and to that found in other Gothic novels of the period where the normal moral and social order is finally reasserted, and the guilty or amoral punished, as in James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions Of A Justified Sinner (1824): “Almighty God, what is this that I am about to do! The hour of repentance is past, and now my fate is inevitable” (Hogg 230). Such conventional morality should be anything but unsettling, but critics such as Jacqueline Howard rightly point out that here is another instance of subversion and disturbing of norms by Gothic novels like Hogg’s, whose conclusion is far less enjoyable – satisfying, even – than the middle of the text. This so-called ‘antiteleological’ model for reading is radical in the extreme.
The eighteenth century Gothic is commonly envisaged as presenting the pervading intellectual temper of the Enlightenment and the rational enquiry of the Scientific Revolution seen through a glass darkly. The themes of superficiality, concealment and blind superstition found in many of the period’s Gothic novels were therefore deeply disturbing to these schools of thought. A favourite image indicative of all these qualities is the veil, first made play with by Ann Radcliffe in The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), and developed by Matthew Lewis in The Monk. Here the veil is a troubling and ambiguous image, both having overtones of marriage, and protecting chastity, but paradoxically indicative of the church’s attempts to cover the hypocrisy within. Since the veil conceals dangerous sexuality, it comes, paradoxically, to represent it. Likewise, Caleb Williams uses the motif of Falkland’s ‘fatal trunk, from which all my misfortunes originated’ (Godwin Volume III Chapter XV p.315); its exact contents are kept cunningly veiled, and Caleb’s attempts to reveal them – unlike the pursuits of scientific truths for the enquiring minds of the Enlightenment – merely result in more ambiguity and mystery. The writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau had a profound effect on the development of the Gothic; his school of primitivism was literally provided a method of reviving the long-lost past through the necromantic powers of Gothic, and his concept of the ‘noble savage’ meshed with the socially excluded individual often found as a Gothic protagonist. An ability to feed basic human fears is the stock-in-trade of much Gothic fiction. The fear of the unknown, the intangible and the unseen is one of these. The fear of being alone, of being unable to forge human relationships is another. Caleb Williams is the archetypal outsider, “a deserted, solitary wretch in the midst of my species” (Godwin Volume III Chapter VIII p.255), in what amounts to an anti-Bildungsroman where development obliterates, rather than constructs, personal identity. Compare Victor Frankenstein “.who had ever been surrounded by amiable companions.was now alone” (Shelley 1818 Volume I Chapter I p.28).
Works such as Godwin’s and Lewis’ may be remote enough in terms of historical context to have lost some of their disturbing impact for a present-day audience, but the principle of the unknown remained an important keystone in generating a disturbingly suspenseful atmosphere in later Gothic novels. Just as, in terms of comedy, superficial innuendo can suggest a more obscene implied meaning, so suggestiveness, and half-glimpsed, half-veiled images within Gothic tales of suspense allow the mind of the reader to imagine all manner of implied horror beyond. Thus the image of the veil is linked to the power of sight; to deprive the body of this faculty is to leave it vulnerable and unable to place itself within its environment. In The Woman in Black, Susan Hill repeatedly places her protagonist, Kipps, in a fog or mist, depriving him of his ability to see and rationalise the world around him, and consequently providing the reader – through Kipps’ half-blindness – with only fragments of sound and sense, designed to create the uncertainty and unease that push Kipps, and to a lesser extent the reader – into an “agony of fear and frustration” (Hill 74). In Dracula (1897), Bram Stoker underlines the fact that the rational mind is disturbed by that it cannot literally perceive and explain: “it is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all; and if it explain not, then it says there is nothing to explain” (Stoker Chapter XIV p.246). The rationale of the scientific method is consistently undermined by the Gothic; it is no longer a means of man’s empowerment over the tyranny of nature, but a form of tyranny itself, wilfully blind. Knowledge should empower, but all it affords the creature in Frankenstein, for example, is a view of the Christian pretensions of civilised society ruthlessly exposed: the literally blind de Lacey would instinctively embrace the creature, his sighted, but morally blind, children shun him. The net result is that “.sorrow only increased with knowledge” (Shelley 1818 Volume I Chapter V p.96).
If the Gothic is a literature of confusing paradox, it is also a literature of perversion. The early Gothic saw to it that a moral code was preserved, the virtuous rewarded, and the guilty punished. Later novels such as The Monk and Frankenstein, which features the deaths of the largely innocent Elizabeth and Clerval, deliberately subverted this code. Lewis’ novel in particular perverts morality and religion to an extraordinary degree, as Catholicism becomes synonymous with idolatrous blasphemy, the very icon of the Madonna is equated with luxuriance, sexuality and power, and spirituality is debased into materialism. The supreme perversion of faith comes in Elvira’s censorship of Antonia’s Bible, since
The annals of a brothel would scarcely furnish a greater choice of indecent expressions.[she decided] that it should be copied out in her own hand, and all improper passages either altered or omitted. (Lewis Volume II Chapter IV pp.259-260)
Moral sensibilities are treated cynically in the novel; female figures who display them are treated little short of voyeuristically, and religious faith becomes corrupting or confining, rather than leading to freedom or salvation. To aim barbs at religious belief was, and to a lesser extent, still is a sure way of disturbing and unsettling a readership to a significant degree .