The term atavism is usually used to express the recurrence or reappearance of certain ‘primitive’ traits, physical or psychical, which presumably match those of an ancestral form. This notion of reversion and evolutionary ‘throwbacks’ was closely linked to criminality and class anxieties (see http://www.criminology.fsu.edu/crimtheory/lombroso.htm for more information about Cesare Lombroso’s theory of the born deviant) in the nineteenth century, and often serves an interesting function mostly in fin de siecle Gothic literature, particularly texts (such as R.L Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, A.C Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles or H.G Well’s The Island of Dr. Moreau) which engage with bodily monstrosity and pseudo-scientific discourses about degeneration.
Urban problems of rising crime and poverty, as well as post-Darwinian anxieties about the increasing destabilization of human identity in late Victorian society seem to become embodied and ‘safely’ displaced through the repugnant form of the regressive atavistic human, whose moral and behavioral aberrations are pre-figured through his/her animalistic physiognomy. As such, tropes of degeneration such as blood, heredity, bestiality and even crumbling structures or spaces that are tied to a stagnant but still potent past frequently crop up in various Gothic texts. In imperial-colonial Gothic discourse, these atavistic elements can be read as a reflection of anxieties about the decay of the gentry and the declining colonial enterprise.
Gothic narratives typically subvert and complicate these conventional perceptions of the ‘social other’ by problematizing the supposedly clear (but ultimately revealed as superficial or at the least, unreliable) distinctness between the ‘proper’, respectable self and its anti-thesis. Via characteristic Gothic devices such as doubling, irony and linguistic /narrative indeterminacy (which highlight the uneasy closeness between these two binaristic oppositions), the geographically, socially and/or biologically transgressive figure of the atavist becomes even more perturbing because he/she blurs the established boundaries drawn between the civilized and the savage, mirroring back to society its own fears and concerns (racial decline, the overlapping of animal and human, etc). Thus, the atavistic being not only presents a direct threat to civilization, but even more disturbingly, undermines the scientific taxonomies and social classifications that it rests on from within.
Courtesy of Quek Sherlyn, National University of Singapore
See also: xenophobia
Arata, Stephen. Fictions of Loss in the Victorian Fin de Siècle. New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Print. Pgs. 33-53.
Hurley, Kelly. The Gothic Body : Sexuality, Materialism, and Degeneration at the Fin De Siècle. Cambridge, England; New York, NY, USA : Cambridge University Press, 1996. Print.
Ethelred & Lidania; OR, The Sacrifice to Woden [Transcript], Sarah Scudgell Wilkinson
Inkle and Yarico; or, Love in a Cave. An Interesting Tale., Sarah Scudgell Wilkinson