Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Degeneration and criminality in Victorian fiction

Actor Richard Mansfield as Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde, 1887

The theory of degeneration: a great concern for the Victorians

Nineteenth century England was the century of modernity and industrialisation, but with great advances comes great concern over the future. People started to wonder what society would look like in a few years as criminality and mental illnesses seemed to be on the rise.

The concern for evolution and what could happen to mankind in the future surely did not come to life during the Victorian era, but was somewhat emphasised throughout the century by the spread of theories such as degeneration. Degeneration is the idea that evolution could go backwards and that unwanted traits or behaviours such as mental illness, criminality, lack of morality or cretinism were hereditary and could be easily explained and detected. This theory was very much widespread and could be found in the works of many scientists and psychologists at the time, but was also explored in popular culture and literature.  

The roots of criminal atavism: the “born criminal”

The theory of degeneration finds its main sources in mid-nineteenth century from the works of many psychologists and biologists, but what is of interest to us is a particular branch later developed by famous Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso.

Lombroso believed in criminal atavism, or the “born criminal”; that is a criminal who could be defined by a set of physical and psychological traits reminiscent of “savages” or even animals. The “born criminal” is above all else born this way, and can be easily recognised as such among populations, according to Lombroso.

In his book Criminal Man, Lombroso wrote a very detailed description of the “born criminal”: “thus were explained anatomically the enormous jaws, high cheek-bones, prominent superciliary arches, solitary lines in the palms, extreme size of the orbits, handle-shaped or sessile ears found in criminals, savages, and apes, insensibility to pain, extremely acute sight, […] and the irresistible craving for evil for its own sake, the desire not only to extinguish life in the victim, but to mutilate the corpse, tear its flesh, and drink its blood”. The “born criminal” does not possess morality, nor is he able to feel any remorse.

First illustrated edition of Dracula, 1901

Dracula and the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: criminal atavism at its best

From there, it is very easy to draw a parallel between Lombroso’s most famous theory and Gothic fiction. The concept of an atavistic criminal seemed to inspire many Victorian writers as we can find striking elements in works of fiction that are still well-known today. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the count himself is the embodiment of criminal atavism: he is wicked and evil, drinks the blood of his victims and lacks any form of morality whatsoever. He presents physical features that are similar to the rather animalistic criminal as he is described as being hairy, having sharp teeth as well as an extraordinary strength for someone as old as he is.

Robert Louis Stevenson offers us a dual representation of Victorian society in his novel The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Dr Jekyll is shown as the perfect and decent Victorian man, while his alter ego is very much so the embodiment of criminal atavism. Mr Hyde is described as a primitive being, driven by urges to do evil deeds around him, such as trample on a young girl or beat an old man to death. Like Count Dracula, he lacks morality and presents dreadful physical features. Just like criminal atavism, which is said to have no effective treatment, Dr Jekyll is unable to fight Mr Hyde and is progressively overcome by him.

Morals and lack thereof: the Time Machine and the Picture of Dorian Gray

As Lombroso explains in his book, the intellect of the “born criminal” is not damaged by his degeneration, but he does not possess any sense of morality. He is mainly driven by his instincts, and can make use of his intellect to achieve his goals. In the Time Machine, the Time Traveller encounters two different peoples when he visits a very distant future. Both present degenerated characteristics, one being excessively idle, deprived of intellect but agreeably peaceful, the other being more cunning, deprived of morality and outrageously barbarous. The latter, called the Morlocks, have a rather dreadful and animalistic physical appearance and mercilessly feed on the peaceful people, the Eloi, as if they were cattle. Never in the novel they seem to show any sign of remorse.

Early illustrated edition of the Picture of Dorian Gray, 1910
The Picture of Dorian Gray approaches the concept of degeneration and criminality in a different manner. Unlike the Morlocks, Dorian Gray is not a distant humanoid creature but a man very much of his time. He lives a life of pleasure, influenced by Lord Henry Wotton, regardless of morality and decency, although he does seem to be horrified by his actions at some point, which is not the case of Count Dracula, Mr Hyde or the Morlocks. Nonetheless, Dorian is responsible for the suicide of a young girl, and the death of one of his friends, whom he kills in a fit of anger. But what makes him truly “atavistic” is the fact that although he remains young and handsome until the end of the novel because of his curse, his portrait bears the stain of every crime, every misdeed he committed. When Dorian dies, he appears a very old and ugly man, a man whom the lack of morality and decency has made him physically degenerate.

In looking at these four most famous late-nineteenth century novels, each exploring the themes of degeneration and criminality in their own way, it is quite clear that the Victorians were very much concerned about these issues. While scientists and criminologists like Cesare Lombroso issued books and articles on the matter, artists and particularly writers got inspired by this concern anchored in late Victorian popular culture. Whether they were arguing about the existence of a “born criminal” altogether evil or feared a degenerated future in which criminality thrived and morality did not exist anymore, the Victorians were certainly fascinated by the human mind and its strange ways. 

Links to images:

Works cited:
  • Cesare Lombroso, Criminal Man, 1911
  • Bram Stoker, Dracula, 1897
  • Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, 1886
  • H. G. Wells, The Time Machine, 1895
  • Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891

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