Gothic Ambivalence of life and death

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Gothic Ambivalence of life and death

Gothic Ambivalence of life and death

Nature is a temple whose living colonnades

Breathe forth a mystic speech in fitful sighs;

Man wanders among symbols in those glades

Where all things watch him with familiar eyes…

Charles Baudelaire, «Correspondences»

Gothic novel reality is saturatedby fear as phenomenon that fulfills certain roles and is related to the theme of death. Gothic writers intensely explored themes of life and death, the self and the double and the supernatural occurrences, which very productively has displayed the ambivalence in our life. Fear germinates ambivalence of different concepts that are accepted in our society or culture, which ensures prosperity of literature as a reflection of human’s imagination and own terrors. This paper is trying to disassemble in repercussions of «fear» as an effect in life by means of two pieces, namely- one of Robert Louis Stevenson short novel «The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde» and the other is Edgar Allen Poe’s short story «The Tell-Tale Heart».

Speaking generally, Gothic fiction explores the most the theme of limitations stability in many possible ways; it problematizes the boundaries, which are fundamental for the usual perception of the world, thus allows feeling the great danger of human culture destruction. Therefore, Gothic text disturbs and frightens by that possibility of violation of the balance between the living and the dead state, the real and the unreal, natural and the supernatural, pain and pleasure, man and woman. The imbalance and duality characterize the Gothic image of the world and cause fear of an uncertain and unpredictable universe.

So, how can be defined the most ancient and powerful of human emotions? The feeling that brings to us the greatness and sublimity of nature, takes hold of us imperiously and freezes the heartbeats in premonition of horror. Edmund Burke said, «No power so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear. «* What is fear, then? David R. Saliba’s definition is, «Fear is the emotional response to the perception of an alternating loss of control and regaining of control» [1].

As we know, the notion of «control» can be interpreted as physical control and/ or psychological control. According to Saliba, if a person experiences the sense of fear, it can lead him physically to loss of his stimulation in life or tonus and, consequently, to death, or psychologically to mental disorder and even to «identity dissolution». Moreover, it is said that «In a biological sense fear is related to death.» It should be said that mental sickness is also a kind of death because the conscious becomes unable to keep the unconscious mind under control. This inevitably leads an individual to a stage of splitting personality, or as it is called in fiction — doubling.

Those arguments fortify the relations fear — death — madness — doubling. The chosen pieces of Poe and Stevenson fully explore those main themes the paper concentrates on.

A significant part of the genius art of Poe was creating a complete picture of the world, which might be for a distinct person — a clear and consistent, and for the outside observer — was characterized by an abundance of non-rational components. His unique perception of the world procreated such themes as fear, death and their symbiosis, madness and doubling.

In Poe’s short story «The Tell-Tale Heart» the most eminent theme is the fear. The narrator’s terror of the unnamed old man leads him to a murder and apparently to a psychological disorder. In order to try to understand the motifs for the evil deed of the protagonist, we have to analyze his real fears. He confesses he loved the old man and that that never harmed him. Then, he asserts that the reason to everything is the old man’s eye with a film over it. «I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this!» (p. 193)

Assumingly, the «eye» can symbolize his reflection — «I». What means that he really loved the old man, but he is uneasy with himself. Even probably he hates himself for his incapacity to control his thoughts and feelings that torture and drives him mad. This can explain his idee fixe «it haunted me day and night» (p. 193) and accurate planning. Approaching Saliba’s book for further information, we might understand that the narrator experiences an intense form of anxiety, which «can come from threatening situations perceived in a person’s surroundings, as well as from what Freud refers to as the id (man's instincts) and the superego (man's conscience). Once anxiety is experienced the ego--or the conscious part of the mind--moves quickly to protect itself through defense mechanisms, which are unconscious reactions that essentially distort reality. «[2] «Presently I heard a slight groan, and I knew it was the groan of mortal terror… it was a stifled sound that arises from the bottom of the soul when overcharched with awe. I knew the sound well. Many a night… it has welled up from my own bosom, deepening, with its dreadful echo, the terrors that distracted me.» (p. 194)

Hence, it is exactly the case; the narrator tries to protect himself from a personal collapse being terrified and blinded within by the «veiled eye» by planning and committing a murder. Thus, his fear was a psychological warning of his future breakdown; «A victim of fear perceives a threat to his identity which he experiences as a loss of control». [3]

The narrator tells the story from the retrospective view beginning with persuading the reader in his sanity and rationality. «True! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?» (p. 193) Though, his words have reversed effect; he emphasizes that he is not in control of himself any more, he is not reliable, he even does not regret or feel any remorse while telling the reader about the murder, which means he is likely a psychopath. death gothic fear indistinct

Additionally, there are many evidences of narrator’s insanity in the text:

· The murder is described in a great deal of details, which indicates narrator’s maniacal head.

He planned the murder seven days and methodically repeated all the actions in order to reach his goal. «…I proceeded — with what caution — with what foresight — with what dissimulation I went to work! I was never that kinder to the old man than duringthe whole week before I killed him.» (p. 193)

· He keeps convincing the reader he is sane; the more he does it, the less we believe in it. «The disease had sharpened my senses — not destroyed — not dulled them. «; «Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me.» (p. 193)

· He is nervous and repeats himself. «I moved it slowly — very, very slowly…» (p. 193); «all in vain. All in vain.» (p. 194); «…for what had I now to fear… for what had I to fear? (p. 196)

· He hears voices; ticking of the heart — all the symptoms of schizophrenia. He is afraid of getting oldand die — itis another motif in this story. The old man represents the time passing; his filmed eye and need in taking care of — weakness. Each beat of a person’s heart gets him closer to his own death. The heart is a symbol of life, whereas when it stops beating — refers to death. Regarding his madness, when he sees the object that reminds or reflects directly his terror he receives a warning signal and tries to eliminate the source of the danger for him. «There came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I knew that sound well too. It was the beating of the old man’s heart. It increased my fury…»; «But the beating grew louder, louder!»; «But, for many minutes, the heart beat on with a muffled sound. «; «At length it ceased. The old man was dead.» (p. 195)

To the end of the story the protagonist exists in ambivalent condition; part of him is content and proud of his plan and its implementation, although the other part is possibly concerned and worried of his impulsive and uncontrolled deed. Being calm and confident with the police at the beginning of their visit, he ends with loud sounds of heart-beating in his head and with his confession. ««Villains!»… «I admit the deed!»… «it is the beating of his hideous heart!» «(p. 197)

Similarly, the protagonist in the novel «The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"faces with loss of self-control and decomposition of identity; however, it leads him to doubling personality, rather to madness.

Likewise to the narrator in «Tell-Tale Heart» Dr. Jekyll is not fond of getting old. «…growing towards the elderly man, this incoherency of my life was daily growing more unwelcome» (p. 85). But the grand fear of his is to die splitted into two; he experiences very grave furcation due to his own desires, wishes and rationales. «And indeed the worst of my faults was a certain impatient gaiety of disposition, such as has made the happiness of many, but such as I found it hard to reconcile with my imperious desire to carry my head high, and wear a more than commonly grave countenance before the public. Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures; and that when I reached years of reflection, and began to look round me and take stock of my progress and position in the world, I stood already committed to a profound duplicity of me… It was thus rather the exacting nature of my aspirations than any particular degradation in my faults, that made me what I was, and, with even a deeper trench than in the majority of men, severed in me those provinces of good and ill which divide and compound man’s dual nature… Though, so profound a double-dealer, I was in no sense hypocrite; both sides of me were in dead earnest; I was no more myself when …» (p. 81)

Subconsciously the ambivalence of Dr. Jekyll’s life irritated him and lead to his dream — creating a potion that would permit him to be beyond that ridiculous period, Victorian severe times with their rules and regulations. «I knew well that I risked death» (p. 83) Nevertheless, Dr. Jekyll came to such deduction, «With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not one, but truly two.» (p. 82)

Fear of ambivalence, that is not a part of someone’s realm of an unambiguous understanding, is a manifestation of a more general fear — of an obscure, elusive and beyond common sense understanding. The terrible motives of indistinct supernatural phenomena may arise from attempts of subconsciousness to present these kinds of independent phenomena. Gothic narrative mostly does not seek to clarify the vague, does not try to comprehend the inconceivable; Mr. Enfield in the novel states, accordingly: «No sir, I make it a rule of mine: the more it looks like Queer Street, the less I ask. «(p. 33) Similarly, Gothic author may deliberately evade precise description and naming the supernatural, or to delay its presentation. «He is not easy to describe. There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something down-right detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why. He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point. He’s an extraordinary looking man, and yet I really can name nothing out of the way. No, sir; I can make no hand of it; I can’t describe him. And it’s not want of memory; for I declare I can see him this moment.» (p. 34)

That deformity symbolizes the imperfection and duplicity of that period society, and it could be said that it is actual till nowadays. «Evil besides (which I must still believe to be the lethal side of man) had left on that body an imprint of deformity and decay.» (p. 84)

According to Botting «the loss of human identity and the alienation of self from both itself and the social bearings in which a sense of reality is secured are presented in the threatening shapes of increasingly dehumanized environments, mechanic doubles and violent, psychotic fragmentation.» [4]

The protagonist reaches a culmination by meeting his double face, much younger, smaller and very evil. Stated by Sigmund Freud is that the `double' is highly connected with such notions as, reflections in mirrors, shadows, the belief in the soul and the most relevant to us, with the fear of death. He passes through the boundaries of life and death leaving them as conventionalities. What is more, the dead state ceases to be the final point and becomes a kind of parallel of the living state; in other words, death as an ultimate and irreversible event becomes a boundary occasion, after which it is possible to move in both directions — either to the dead and living areas. What scares in such interpretation is the bidirectional permeability, the possibility of a transition from non-living to living and vice versa. Moreover, such an alternation never occurred to be a favourable resurrection of an evangelical type; it never contributed to a recovery of a

lifetime status quo of the body and mind, which is why the borders between dead and alive in Gothic fiction become blurred. «I, for my part, from the nature of my life, advanced infallibly in one direction and in one direction only. It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both; …If each, I told myself, could be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil. It was the curse of mankind that these incongruous faggots were thus bound together -- that in the agonised womb of consciousness, these polar twins should be continuously struggling. How, then were they dissociated?» (p. 82)

Motive of duality, is a shining example for that blurring of boundaries between the self and the other, is always based on the lethality of the double. The double figure coincides with the `original' in all features, although remains to be the second, who denies the uniqueness of the person and can replace the doubling object, or simply — to destroy him. The true horror of Jekyll and Hyde’s secret is that each is actually trapped within the grip of the other, fighting for dominance, but not that they are two sides of the same person, each persona able to assert itself at will. «He put the glass to his lips, and drank at one gulp. A cry followed; he reeled, staggered, clutched at the table and held on, staring with injected eyes, gasping with open mouth; and as I looked there came, I thought, a change--he seemed to swell--his face became suddenly black and the features seemed to melt and alter--and at the next moment, I had sprung to my feet and leaped back against the wall, my arm raised to shield me from that prodigy, my mind submerged in terror. „O God!“ I screamed, and „O God!“ again and again; for there before my eyes--pale and shaken, and half fainting, and groping before him with his hands, like a man restored from death--there stood Henry Jekyll!» (p. 80) The transformation process appears decently violent and devastating, causing the metamorphosis of the body — «reel,» «stagger,» and «gasp». Indeed, by this point in the novel, Jekyll is losing ground to Hyde, and, correspondingly, emerges «half fainting,» as if «restored from death.» As stated by Freud about the doubling, «From having been an insurance of immortality, it becomes the uncanny harbinger of death.» [5]

The paper has examined such phenomena as madness, duality of identity, obscurity that are closely connected and implicated by our fears. As said by Botting, «human desires and neuroses are dressed in the lurid hues of the supernatural to the extent that nightmare and reality become entwined.» [6] It relates to both pieces that were analysed through. In «The-Tell-Tale Heart» the narrator is experiencing certain delusions and anxieties about death. He cannot distinguish any more where the illusion is and where the reality is. Likewise, Dr. Jekyll is struggling with his second self for existence and towards the end of the novel transforms into Hyde without drinking the potion. Jekyll cannot control his body, life and reality any longer; he is vanishing, while the animalistic and evil Hyde takes charge of everything. Supernatural hues are very eminent and mystic, which enhances the horror — in Poe’s story the «evil» eye with the «hideous veil» (p. 195) that mesmerises the narrator and the heart beating of the corpse, which drives him to insanity; the mystery of the transformations, Jekyll’s experiments in his cabinet and the pleasure that Hyde gets committing crimes are revealed towards the end of the novel and nourish the doomed and dark atmosphere during the piece. Uncertain in the Gothic plot often takes the form, contrary to the known laws of nature, the notion of world order. Unknown turns unnatural. Unnatural seems to be dangerous in view of the fact that its existence threatens the usual order of things, and consequently there is a risk to life.


Sigmund Freud, The «Uncanny» (1900, 1929)

David R. Saliba, A Psychology of Fear: The Nightmare Formula of Edgar Allan Poe (Lantham, MD: University Press of America, 1980)

Fred Botting, Gothic (London, 1996)

David Punter, Gothic Pathologies (1998)

Victor Sage (editor), The Gothick Novel (The Macmillan Press LTD, 1990)

Text cited:

Poe, Edgar Allan (1809−1818). The Tell-Tale Heart: Selected tales (Oxford university press) pp. 193−197

Stevenson, Robert Louis (1850−1894). The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

(Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library)

http: //etext. virginia. edu/toc/modeng/public/SteJekl. html

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