Whether it is an appeal to the unrefined, uneducated working class or a reflection of a troubled society, violence runs rampant in the Gothic, and is especially concentrated in the compressed storytelling of the chapbooks, bluebooks, and penny bloods. Scholar Mary Ellen Snodgrass accuses "hack writers like Sarah Wilkinson" of pandering "to the lowest common denominator with chapbook texts made lurid by a profusion of sadism, sexual deviance, murder, rape, hangings, cannibalism, lycanthrophy, and vampirism." Whether the violence is carefully glossed over (Ann Radcliffe, Charlotte Smith), or painted in sensational and bloody detail (Matthew Lewis, Charles Brockden Brown, Edgar Allan Poe), it is a hallmark of the Gothic narrative, and serves many functional purposes beyond inspiring terror in the reader.
In some Gothic novels, violence functions as either an act of social interrogation or of affirmation for certain values. In Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, strict social mores and policing that prompt the disastrous, transgressive reactions of repressed selves are manifested in the physical violence wrought by Frankenstein’s and Dr Jekyll’s doubles, the monster and Mr. Hyde. This violence also highlights class anxieties where the repressed working class, like Frankenstein’s self-educated monster, rebels violently against social masters like Frankenstein. Human superficiality that incites Frankenstein’s monster’s violence also operates to reflect the monstrosity in society itself.
Scientific advancement and its monstrous power (building on the Promethean over-reacher theme) are also examined in terms of their production of violent figures and emotional violence, like that experienced by Frankenstein and Dr. Lanyon after witnessing what science can achieve. Here, Gothic atavism alongside material and scientific progress is manifested in the figures of Jekyll and Hyde, where the latter’s regression is demonstrated in his ape-like appearance and, more significantly, in his disregard of human moral codes — his violence. Yet, while violence undermines and questions the adequacy of law, it also serves to affirm social codes. The violence of staking in Dracula, for instance, acts as a social cleansing ritual of removing figures that threaten social instability and miscegenation. The violence of staking Lucy and the mutilation of Elizabeth in Frankenstein, also takes on phallic terms to affirm masculinity in an age of increasing sexual anxieties.
Courtesy of Sophia Koh, National University of Singapore and Wendy Fall, Marquette University
Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. Encyclopedia of Gothic Literature. New York : Facts on File, 2005. Print.
Horatio and Camilla; OR, THE NUNS OF ST. MARY. A TALE OF THE FOURTEENTH CENTURY [Transcript], Sarah Scudgell Wilkinson
The Gothic Story of Courville Castle; or the Illegitimate Son, a Victim of Prejudice and Passion: Owing to the Early Impressions Inculcated with Unremitting Assiduity by an Implacable Mother Whose Resentment to Her Husband Excited Her Son to Envy, Usurpation, and Murder; but Retributive Justice at Length Restores the Right Heir to His Lawful Possessions. To Which is Added the English Earl: or the History of Robert Fitzwalter, Unknown
The Vindictive Monk or The Fatal Ring [Transcript], Isaac Crookenden