[This essay was written in 2020 for a university class on the Gothic tradition in Western literature.]
Gothic literature is latent with the unknown and the unknowable. Recognisability in the face of otherworldly horrors compounds an already unsettling narrative, and as explored below, seeing ourselves in what we do not understand chills us more than the outright inexplicable. Two works of the Gothic canon, Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, both aim to hold a mirror up to personal identity and repressed desire through the use of external, unfamiliar evils, in recognisable forms of flesh and blood, exemplifying the literary technique of the uncanny. Freud’s identically titled essay, The ‘Uncanny’ (1919), explores this relationship between familiarity, unfamiliarity, and horror. Freud’s interpretation claims fear is based in repression, revealing something inner that had been psychologically concealed. Using the notion of the German heimlich, meaning homely and familiar but also private and concealed – and its inversion meaning unfamiliar but revealed – Freud concludes that “everything is unheimlich that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light” (225).
The unheimlich thus becomes the uncanny, and is an often applied form of horror in Gothic fiction, for its elements of deceit, dramatic changes in character, and the use of supernatural, in playing on fears of the world not operating in the ways we understand (Hughes 241). These tropes assist Gothic authors in exploring the divide between humanity and its internal darknesses.
Monsters as Men (and Women): Dracula
“There is but a short conceptual distance between the dead and the deadly” (Hughes 26).
The most evident example of the uncanny in Bram Stoker’s Dracula is the titular antagonist and the cohort of undead women he enlists into his violent deeds. Freud himself speaks on the undead as a source of uncanny horror, articulating that “our thoughts and feelings have changed so little… as our relation to death” (242). Our fear and lack of knowledge of what lies beyond the grave exemplifies the uncanny when the concept of the undead arises – we have no proof that death is not avoidable (Freud 242), and so the protagonists in Stoker’s novel are struck with horror upon realising the dead walk among them. Count Dracula appears as a man of living flesh, but is in fact a dead man with the inexplicable ability to speak and act as a living, breathing human, albeit with some supernatural constraints. Jonathan Harker’s first interaction with the Count suggests to the reader (and indeed Harker himself) that Dracula possesses some relation to the grave:
[H]e moved impulsively forward, and holding out his hand grasped mine with a strength that made me wince, an effect which was not lessened by the fact that it seemed cold as ice – more like the hand of a dead than a living man. (Stoker 16)
Harker is continually unsettled by the apparent inhuman nature of the Count, and yet is possessed of no proof that he is anything but a man such as himself. That is until he discovers the Count asleep in his coffin of earth. Dodds (2011) explores another key theme of the uncanny discussed in Freud’s essay, that of the unheimlich relationship between the grave and the womb. This dynamic creates a fear of being buried alive – a theme that Harker and Dr Seward both experience at the sight of Dracula and Lucy, respectively, lying in their coffins – yet the familiarity of such a confined space from our existence within the womb prior to our birth causes the fear of live burial to become uncanny (Dodds). The connection of this fear to female reproductive organs also offers a reading on the sexualised nature of Lucy’s death and the role of the other vampiric women of the novel (see Senf and Griffin).
In fact, the mere image of Lucy Westenra slinking through a graveyard post mortem becomes another example of the uncanny in Dracula. Her being of the living dead is uncanny in itself, yet as readers, having read Lucy’s diary, and become familiar with her sweet and caring demeanour, to have her become a monster is a shock to our understanding of her character. As the narrator of this scene, Dr Seward experiences the same injury to his perceptions, noting the disconnect between what he knows to be his dead friend, and the creature that stands before him and his companions:
Lucy Westenra, but yet how changed… I call the thing that was before us Lucy because it bore her shape. (Stoker 215-6)
Lucy’s transformation from adored young lady to malevolent monster is uncanny for her reversal of character, her appearance as “more radiantly beautiful than ever” (Stoker 203) even a week after her death – playing upon the fear of live burial – and her rising from the grave itself.
Men as Monsters: Jekyll & Hyde
“We can also speak of a living person as uncanny, and we do so when we ascribe evil intentions to him” (Freud 243).
In a reversal of Dracula’s undead and inhuman horror, Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde places the wicked Edward Hyde as a flesh and blood representation of the uncanny, being a physical manifestation of evil in human form. In the final confessional chapter of the novella, Jekyll himself states his newfound alter, “alone, in the ranks of mankind, was pure evil” (Stevenson 85).
Freud adds to his brief analysis of the uncanny in the living person that the expectation of harm should be “carried out with the help of special powers” (243). While this can of course mean abilities of a supernatural variety – and indeed the transformation of ‘good’ Jekyll into ‘evil’ Hyde may be considered such an ability designed to cause harm – this claim of Freud’s could be read simply as an internal fear of the character and/or reader. Hyde does not possess any magical abilities, and yet he is still considered by the cast of characters interacting with him to be something of inhuman malignity:
“[A]nd there was the man in the middle, with a kind of black sneering coolness – frightened too, I could see that – but carrying it off, sir, really like Satan.” (Stevenson 32)
“[H]e thought of Hyde, for all his energy of life, as of something not only hellish but inorganic.” (Stevenson 95)
And yet perhaps the most uncanny violence that Hyde commits is that of turning all who look upon him into villains themselves (Danahay 30). The opening chapter has Enfield relate his encounter with Hyde as a member of a group accosting him for trampling a child. Enfield recounts how unfamiliar desires arose in him and the people around him at the sight of Hyde, stating even the most demure of individuals present “turned sick and white with the desire to kill him” and “were as wild as harpies” (Stevenson 31-2). Awakening attitudes and behaviours within oneself which were previously unknown to that same self (if we are to take the same image Stevenson uses, another being entirely) elicits the horror of not knowing, or controlling, one’s own self.
Henry Jekyll can be himself considered a similar example of the uncanny, being the origin of Edward Hyde. As the dramatic reversal of character and behaviour is an element of the unheimlich (Hughes 241), the shift from Jekyll to Hyde and back again exemplifies the uncanny. As Arata notes, the primary source of horror in Stevenson’s novella is “not that the professional man is transformed into an atavistic criminal, but that the atavist learns to pass as a gentleman” (240). Jekyll’s change into the character of Hyde represents his own violent desires, with the former remaining an “incongruous compound” (Stevenson 85) of reputable gentleman and criminal of sinister desire. While the supernatural transformation is uncanny in itself, Jekyll’s abandonment of socially acceptable behaviour – whether or not by literally becoming a different person – means he becomes unfamiliar to his colleagues, and also to himself, as the repression of his shameful desires not only surface, but overtake him. As Reid puts it, “Jekyll’s problems . . . stem not from his savage instincts per se, but from his culturally informed anxiety to deny this biological heritage” (quoted in Oulton 3).
The eventual collapse of distinction between Jekyll and Hyde not only emphasises Jekyll’s inherent sinful nature, but also suggests Hyde was never really a separate entity at all. The end of the novella has Jekyll unable to control the transformation from his body to that of Hyde, and back again, “as if to indicate that we need no longer distinguish between them” (Arata 240). Jekyll’s inconsistent referral of himself and Hyde in the third person also points to a convergence of characters, as well as a loss of his identity with Dr Henry Jekyll. The irregular identification of Jekyll and Hyde, as individuals and as the same man, creates an uneasiness in subverting the expectation of knowing who is who, in turn making the reader unsure of whose perspective with which they are engaging.
“[There are] connections which the ‘double’ has with reflections in mirrors, with shadows, with guardian spirits, with the belief in the soul and with the fear of death…” (Freud 234-5)
Doubling in Gothic literature, often in the form of doppelgängers or alter-egos (Hughes 97), elicits horror due to the self becoming external, and indeed, “often the double comes to dominate, control, and usurp the functions of the subject” (Herdman 14), leaving the original without control or identity. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is possibly the best-known work featuring the double.
[T]he searchers came to the cheval-glass, into whose depth they looked with an involuntary horror…
‘This glass has seen some strange things, sir,’ whispered Poole.
‘And surely none stranger than itself,’ echoed the lawyer, in the same tone. (Stevenson 71)
The personification of Henry Jekyll’s mirror in this scene evokes the uncanny in its few short lines, becoming an animated object that should not be living (Freud 226, 233). However, it is what the glass has seen that beholds the most uncanny of this study. Following his first transformation into Hyde, Jekyll (notably still fully aware of his movements) remarks upon his new reflection, writing that he “was conscious of no repugnance, rather a leap of welcome. This, too, was myself… [and] it bore a livelier image of the spirit” (Stevenson 84). The doctor thus not only recognises himself in the evil form of Edward Hyde – as an extension of his personality, rather than a separation of it – but also accepts Hyde as part of himself, despite his initial desire to divorce this part of his identity from himself.
Hyde’s ambiguity of appearance, and the negative emotional response it causes, are also absent from Jekyll’s introduction to his new form. Along with his explicit statement of feeling “no repugnance” (84), Jekyll is able to not only describe Hyde’s appearance in detail – something which no other character had been able to achieve – but also theorise as to why his body is ‘deformed.’ Jekyll being the only individual not to react negatively to seeing Hyde’s appearance suggests the latter is entirely incorporated into the character of Dr Jekyll, and the doubling of identities represents only the doctor’s internal conflict.
Stoker does not use this technique at the forefront of Dracula, but as Nußbaumer suggests, in the early chapters of the novel, the Count may be considered to be the dark double of Jonathan Harker (13). When Harker is shaving, he fails to see the appearing Count in the mirror:
The whole room behind me was displayed; but there was no sign of a man in it, except myself. (Stoker 26)
When Harker finds only himself in the mirror when he looks for a monster, he could be seeing only his repressed desires and fears embodied in the room with him (Nußbaumer 13-14). Similarly, “mirrors traditionally represent the soul” (Ramsland, quoted in Nußbaumer 14), and only one soul being reflected suggests there is in fact only one individual, but his ‘pure’ and ‘wicked’ sides physically separated. This analysis also fits with Freud’s note that “the ‘immortal’ soul was the first ‘double’ of the body” (235).
Again the young man’s desires are mirrored in the actions and presence of Dracula, who is later witnessed climbing down the castle wall (Nußbaumer 13). Though Harker “did not see his face” (Stoker 35), the event occurs immediately following Harker expressing his feelings of imprisonment and longing for freedom, indicating again his will for the ability to escape externalised in the form of the Count.
The use of the uncanny in Gothic literature is central to creating its horror, based on the multifaceted use of unfamiliarity in things we know, and identification in things we fear and do not understand. The human body is a common site of the uncanny, as it can both frighten us through doubt about one’s physicality, as well as witnessing dramatically inhuman personalities attached to a living being. The proverbial mirror these literary techniques hold up to society reveal the deep, hidden parts of our psyche which dreads abnormality and worldly ignorance. One might wonder if their own reflection reveals the true self, or merely the outer shell of someone with dark, repressed capabilities.
- Arata, Stephen D. “The Sedulous Ape: Atavism, Professionalism, and Stevenson’s “Jekyll and Hyde.”” Criticism, Vol. 37, No. 2, 1995, pp. 233-259.
- Danahay, Martin. “Dr. Jekyll’s Two Bodies.” Nineteenth-Century Contexts, Vol. 35, No. 1, 2013, 23-40.
- Dodds, Joseph. “The Monstrous Brain: A Neuropsychoanalytic Aesthetics of Horror.” PsyArt, 2011, psyartjournal.com/article/show/dodds-the_monstrous_brain_a_neuropsychoanalyti. Accessed 12 Nov 2020.
- Freud, Sigmund. “The ‘Uncanny.’” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Hogarth Press, 1953, pp.219-252.
- Griffin, Gail. ‘“Your Girls That You All Love are Mine”: Dracula and the Victorian Male Sexual Imagination.’ 1980. Reprinted in Dracula: The Vampire and the Critics. Ed. Margaret Louise Carter. UMI Research Press, 1988, pp.137–148.
- Herdman, John. The Double in Nineteenth-Century Fiction. Palgrave Macmillan, 1990.
- Hughes, William. Historical Dictionary of Gothic Literature. Scarecrow Press, 2012.
- Nußbaumer, Janina. “Otherness in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” The Vampire in Literature: A Comparison of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. Diplomica Verlag, 2013, pp.12-21.
- Oulton, Carolyn W de la L. “‘Licking the Chops of Memory’: Plotting the Social Sins of Jekyll and Hyde.” Humanities, Vol. 7, No. 2, 2018, search-proquest-com.ezproxy.flinders.edu.au/docview/2108440903?accountid=10910. Accessed 13 Nov 2020.
- Ramsland, Katherine. The Vampire Companion: The Official Guide to Anne Rice’s “The Vampire Chronicles.” Ballantine, 1995. Quoted in Nußbaumer, Janina. “Otherness in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” The Vampire in Literature: A Comparison of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. Diplomica Verlag, 2013, pp.12-21.
- Reid, Julia. Robert Louis Stevenson, Science, and the Fin de Siècle. Palgrave, 2006. Quoted in Oulton, Carolyn W de la L. “‘Licking the Chops of Memory’: Plotting the Social Sins of Jekyll and Hyde.” Humanities, Vol. 7, No. 2, 2018.
- Senf, Carol. “Dracula and Women.” The Cambridge Companion to Dracula. Ed. Roger Luckhurst. Cambridge University Press, 2018, pp.114-122
- Stevenson, Robert Louis. “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.” 1886. Reprinted in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Stories. Penguin, 1979, pp.27-97.
- Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Race Point Publishing, 1897.