Monday, 17 November 2014

The Victorian Fear of Regression

The Victorian Fear of Regression
            When one thinks of the Victorians, one of the first things that is likely to come to mind is their fascination with morality. In fact, the Victorian obsession with morality is practically infamous, and even more so was their constant tying of morality to matters of culture and race. The idea that race might somehow connect with morals would only grow worse when it married with Darwin’s theory of evolution. The end result of these ideas coming together would be the belief that whites had advanced beyond those that were thought of as the ‘lesser’ races, which were seen as being closer to animals. This idea would, in turn, spawn a powerful fear that England might at any moment find itself sliding right back down the evolutionary ladder, somehow ‘devolving’ into beings that more resembled the non-Caucasian races, going from cultured and sophisticated men to brutish and immoral. Some may have even feared a full return to a more ape-like state. As with all fears, paranoia eventually led to action, and there was an obsession with finding out if early warning signs of this ‘immoral devolution’ existed, and if so what they might be. It was eventually ‘discovered’ that these symptoms not only existed, but often manifested as a resemblance to less advanced peoples, which the Victorians would call ‘proof’ that said people were closer to animals than to human beings. This breathless terror of devolution into a lesser form of man would express itself, not just in the rigid morality or racial politics, but also in the day to day culture of Victorian England. I will be exploring some of these examples, and explaining a little more in-depth how they relate to this bizarre cultural and racial belief.

  The tying of a ‘beastly’ person to immoral action has been done for centuries in the form of monsters such as werewolves, but nothing made that shift into immoral brute quite as horrific as the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson. His novella The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde features the fear of animalistic regression, and an associated moral decline, as a very prominent theme. In fact, it is the premise of the entire plot. Dr. Jekyll, who is by all accounts a very proper gentleman, finds a way to set free his inner sinner, who gives an “impression of deformity” to all who see him, creating a powerful sense of revulsion in everybody he comes across (Stevenson 12). The characterizing of Hyde as an animalistic brute begins in this simple, less overt way, more referring to him as simply deformed. What’s more, Jekyll is still depicted as being in control of himself and his alter-ego, deliberately choosing to let Hyde out and so purge himself of sinful desires. It takes time for things to get worse and Jekyll inevitable allows Hyde, his inner animal, to roam freely more and more often, which causes Hyde to gain strength and control, and he commits worse and worse crimes as he does so. Once Hyde has truly gained strength, Jekyll rapidly begins to slide right down the evolutionary ladder with Hyde taking control whether Jekyll wishes him to or not, all from allowing himself to step down a single rung for just a few moments. The fall was not just disastrous, but easy, Jekyll believing that he was in control right up until it was too late. Hyde gains so much power that by the end of the novella, Jekyll is utterly gone, writing in his last moments that “This, then, is the last time, short of a miracle, that Henry Jekyll can think his own thoughts,” as his inner brute is now fully in control (Stevenson 63). Dr. Jekyll’s fate is a powerful showcase of the fear of regression, to the point of flying in the face of logic, as it seems utterly impossible to move from ‘regression’ back into ‘progression’ despite the fact that, logically, humanity has progressed from animals to sentience before. The idea that this could move from dramatic fiction to reality horrified the Victorians, and became both a source of and justification for a number of their more controversial viewpoints, especially in regard to race.
            The Victorian fear of reverting into a less civilized condition was inevitably affected by their views on race, which put Anglo-Saxon whites at the top of the social pyramid and those races native to their various colonies on the bottom. This was helped along by the long-existing attempt to tie “moral statistics” to “anthropological questions”, and so become a major aspect of Victorian viewpoints (Richards 16). Psuedo-sciences would come into being that supported this racial agenda, such as phrenology, which examined the shape of the skull in order to determine the dimensions of the brain. Since it was believed that different portions or ‘organs’ of the brains controlled different aspects of personality or mental health, and that the “size of an organ, other things being equal, is a measure of its power”, different head shapes could be associated with different psychological traits such as calm demeanors, affinity for violence, or even neatness and attention to detail (VictorianWeb). As such, it became very common to ‘judge books by their cover’ and base opinions of people on the structure of their head and face. Since it wouldn’t do for the Victorians to find any of their own people deficient, phrenology fell in line with pre-existing ideas about race and would come to ‘prove’ that the dimensions and shape of the head that indicated the most advanced and sophisticated brain were those found amongst people of Anglo-Saxon descent. As an example, it was believed that Englishmen were often more moral since they had slightly more curved foreheads, and “a prominent protuberance in the forehead” could indicate a large “organ of Benevolence” 
in the person’s brain, or the prominence of several other traits, such as intelligence (Victorian Web). The ease with whic phrenology could be adjusted to suit the Victorian’s racial views as well as justify their fear of becoming more like their animalistic forefathers greatly aided in its popular acceptance, and a combination of refusal to acknowledge contradictions as well as circular arguments, such as claiming that one area of the brain count counter-act another, would prevent it from being uprooted for a very long time. This pseudo-science would continue to help hold up the belief of various ethnicities being closer or farther away from mankind’s apish ancestors, and to fuel the fear of becoming more ‘primitive’, a fear that would never fully leave the Victorians’ way of thinking.

Ultimately, the Victorians’ obsession with combining issues of race, culture, and morality still remains a significant part of their legacy. Their strange fear that social ideas of morality were tied to biology, and that changing one would change the other, appears in places from literature to popular science, seeming to work its way into all manner of places in the culture. Whether it’s in the moral tones of their writing or the false sciences that were abandoned by those who came after them, their intensely strong ideas of morality and fear that they may collapsing into immorality seems to have touched nearly every part of who they were. It ultimately seems that it is to remain a lasting part of the legacy that they left behind.
Works Cited
Richards, Evelleen. “The “Moral Anatomy” of Richard Knox: The interplay between biological and social thought in Victorian scientific naturalism”. Journal of the History of Biology, Fall 1989, Volume 22, Issue 3, pp 373-436.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. “The Strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” First published 1886.

Images Used
Phrenology’s “Grades of Intelligence”:

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