Literally meaning “end of century”, fin de siècle Gothic refers specifically to the Gothic literature of the last two to three decades of the 19th century. There is a pervading sense of instability and unease; an age was coming to an end and things would change, not necessarily for the better. This is reflected by the idea of human devolution or degeneration, seen in Stevenson’s Olalla, where we are able to see the full effects of the devoluted foreign family in the figure of the mother and brother. In Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, it is made worse because the upper-crust Dr. Jekyll transforms himself into the degenerate Hyde. This choice, however, is gradually taken away from him, and he loses control so that he becomes involuntarily trapped in the form (and personality) of Hyde. The devolution of a character is sometimes accompanied by a destabilizing loss of control, not only in the personal sphere, but also in terms of the empire and its inability to ultimately control the Hyde-like natives. The fatalistic sense that the civilized Jekyll would be subsumed by Hyde, taken in this colonial context, suggested a strong belief that Jekyll would have done better not to indulge in Hyde, but should have remained with the civilized elite who were his friends. Anxieties about the city and its future are also a feature, in the recurring image of a threatening cityscape that is always possessed of a dark underside capable of hiding characters like Stoker’s Dracula and Stevenson’s Hyde. The foreign threat appears in Dracula, who not only threatens the loss of life, and civilized living but also the women, so that the very future of the city is one of parasitical creatures who are sired by a foreign menace. The twofold threat here is thus not only that of diluting racial bloodlines, but also of losing the culture of this city to the lesser foreign type.
Broader artistic and literary movements also shaped fin de siècle Gothic literature. In Russia, for example, the prominence of symbolism prompted writers such as Anton Chekov to turn to Gothic expression (The Black Monk, 1894). The fin de siècle Gothic also served to denigrate French Decadence. In Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Dorian's degeneration to dissipation is connected to a French Decadent text.
Female writers in the Gothic fin de siècle often challenged assumptions and fears around women's roles in the patriarchal structure of society. Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper is an example, depicting a woman's descent into madness as she is trapped in a room by her husband, unable to adapt to the expectations of the traditional roles of wife and mother, aching for a pen and paper with which to write. In Charlotte Mew's A White Knight (1903), Ella witnesses the live entombment of a woman who is presented as marginal and insignificant, and is forever haunted by it.
The fin de siècle also embraced certain Gothic tropes which lent themselves well to the mood of the period:
- Ghost stories were immensely popular, and even authors who weren't traditionally 'Gothic writers' (Edith Wharton, Edith Nesbit, Grant Allen) participated in the craze.
- Hypnotism and mesmerism were also fads eagerly explored by Arthur Conan Doyle and Guy de Maupassant, among others.
- The fin de siècle obsession with the occult and spiritualism became a subject of popular fiction and that continued well into the 1900s. Algernon Blackwood's The Willows (1907) for example, features unidentified beings who are close to breaking into the human world.
Courtesy of Kimberly Chaw Lock Wai, National University of Singapore and Wendy Fall, Marquette University
Hughes, William, David Punter, and Andrew Smith. The Encyclopedia of the Gothic . Chichester, West Sussex, UK : Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. Print.