Birth evolves in Gothic literature as an overdetermined symbol stemming from man’s darkest desires to overreach the boundaries of knowledge. A distortion of the natural act of human creation, the emphasis on its agonized, painful labor process functions as a perversion of nature in giving birth to all that is monstrous in human nature outside the safety of the domestic sphere. The arduous process of animating life in Frankenstein and Jekyll and Hyde manifests itself in the deformed birth-child that results: which Frankenstein condemns as “a filthy creation… [a] demoniacal corpse to which I had so miserably given life” (56).
The trope of a deformed, perverted birth also has Biblical echoes, most evident in the demonic trinity of Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which Sin is taken from Satan’s head and the incestuous son of their union is torn out of her bowels. This is alluded to in the reference to Hyde as a “child of Hell”, spawned from a division of evil that tears away the darker desires embedded in his creator’s nature. It also resonates with the birth of the Gothic novel, as the creation of its authors’ restless imaginations and underlying desires in a repressive society. Newfound impulses to conquer science and control creation can also be read as the challenging of authority, manifested in the birth of a rebellious self contesting religious and social orthodoxy. The birth of the monster in Frankenstein thus becomes a metaphor for the threatening figure of a working-class Everyman, who is nevertheless a product of bourgeois authority as much as its enemy.
Birth also becomes enmeshed with larger societal anxieties stemming from Malthus’s treaty on population explosion, in the Victorian fear that racial (and social) Others would reproduce aggressively to threaten the existing power structure, and taint racial purity. This is mirrored by Frankenstein’s fear that the monster would reproduce. Ultimately, the distorted birth process that haunts the Gothic narrative is checked by the monstrous creation it releases: a mirror to the darkest aspects of its creator.
Courtesy of Niroshi Sadanandan, National University of Singapore
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Ed. Gordon Teskey. 3rd ed. (New York; London: W. W. Norton, 2005).
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein (London: Penguin Books, 1994).
Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (London: Penguin Books, 1994).