The home became a means of exploring and uncovering social transgressions in fin de siècle Gothic literature because of its apparent domesticity, respectability, association with family history and its role as being the most intimate shelter of privacy. Here, Freud’s principle of the uncanny, derived from the word unheimlich, which interestingly means un-homely, provides a useful context. Unheimlich gains its meaning from its apparent opposite, heimlich, which means homely but it also means something that is concealed, secret and made obscure. Therefore, the uncanny means something that ought to have remained secret has now come to light. As such, homes became the sites of concealed secrets that fin de siècle Gothic literature attempts to uncover, since the genre is characterized by ideas of encountering the internal decay of established societal structures.
The fin de siècle Gothic writers’ conception of the home as a site where their characters engaged and explored transgressions reflected the Victorians’ frustration with a rigid social code demarcating boundaries and markers around economic status and gender roles. In Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Jekyll moves to the innermost sanctuary of his home, the laboratory, to concoct mixtures that will set free his repressed, violent and libidinal nature. This part of Jekyll’s nature was distilled in the swarthy, working-class featured figure of Hyde, who visibly transgresses accepted social conventions of Victorian middle class life and respectability. Here, the home conceals these secret activities.
Yet, the home’s nature to “home” emphasizes its vulnerability to becoming un-homed. When Hyde ventures out of the home at night and engages in activities that attract the attention of Jekyll’s contemporaries, Jekyll’s secret transformation to Hyde within his home runs the risk of being un-homed. Indeed, this risk becomes a reality when Jekyll’s secret transformation into Hyde suddenly takes place away from the home in Regent Park. Compellingly, the notions of being homed and un-homed describes Jekyll and Hyde’s situation in Regent Park as Hyde becomes un-homed, while Jekyll is homed (and trapped) in a body he does not want to be in during the day as he moves through a public space. Jekyll describes this fear in his final letter to Dr Utterson:
“A moment before I had been safe of all man’s respect, wealthy, beloved – the cloth laying for me in the dining room at home; and now I was the common quarry of mankind, hunted, houseless, a known murderer, thrall to the gallows” (Dr. Jekyll, 72).
Here, Jekyll reverses his desires to transgress social boundaries, emphasizing Victorian middle class anxieties of being associated with and overwhelmed by the working class that were taking up a large part of rapidly urbanized cities in the nineteenth century. As such, Jekyll’s anxious desire for his home with all its trappings of comfort, love and respectability emphasizes another conception of home by the fin de siècle Gothic writer, where secret social transgressions within the home will potentially lead to the destruction or loss of the home.
Courtesy of Niluksi Koswanage, National University of Singapore
Ellis, Kate Ferguson. The Contested Castle : Gothic Novels and the Subversion of Domestic Ideology. Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 1989. Print.
Freud, Sigmund, et al. Collected Papers [by] Sigmund Freud; Authorized Translation Under the Supervision of Joan Riviere. New York: Basic Books, 1959. Print.