The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines purity as the quality or condition of being pure in various aspects . In general, it signifies “faultlessness, correctness”, and especially “freedom from matter that contaminates, defiles, corrupts, or debases; physical cleanness”. The idea of purity is also specifically relevant to the individual, denoting an unblemished character, innocence, and the condition of “chastity, ceremonial cleanness” in one of the earliest uses of the word.
In gothic literature, the issue of purity is commonly a source of anxiety, having religious, social, and even political significance. The anxiety begins very probably as a result of a Judeo-Christian religious heritage; because God is pure and cannot abide impurity, sinful man has to continually struggle between holy and earthly desires. This physically unbridgeable distance between God and man is further strained by the threat of rejection “…Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.” in 2 Corinthians 6:17, The Holy Bible (New International Version).
In all other associations, one may see the great concern with purity through the extent to which the idea of mixture, invasion and corruption play a part in gothic narratives such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, R.L. Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. For instance, each of these narratives purposes to tell a tale or report a strange case, but the integrity of each narrative is compromised by the epistolary form that is inevitably subjective and incomplete in knowledge. In addition, the heterogeneity of voices—especially in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Dracula—suggests the difficulty of sustaining a single correct perspective. The threat of impurity is consequently played out in the struggle between human and monstrous protagonists, the overarching human anxiety being aptly voice by Frankenstein when he expressed the fear that “a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror” (160). In short, purity means such a lot in gothic literature because the alternative is an uncontainable, and therefore unsafe, sublimity.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. England: Penguin Group, 1994.
Stevenson, R.L. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Great Britain: Wordsworth Edition Limited, 1999.
Stoker, Bram. Dracula. London: Penguin Group, 2003.
Courtesy of Tan Su Linn, 2004, National University of Singapore class: EN 4223 - Topics in the Nineteenth Century: The Gothic and After, Gothic Keywords project .
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