The Role Of The Double In Victorian Gothic Fiction
As I examine the role of the double in Victorian Gothic fiction, I will be focusing on Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). Gothic literature is a genre of writing, first generated by Horace Walpole in 1764 with his work entitled The Castle of Otranto. Typically characterized by an aura of mystery and suspense, the mode features varying elements of horror, romance, and terror. Having moved past the age of Walpole’s Otranto, where the term gothic ‘signified anything obsolete, old- fashioned, or outlandish’ , Robert Louis Stevenson published his Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which began the fin de siècle renaissance of Gothic literature, offering readers an outlet to explore their contemporary reservations, as late Victorian audiences feared a society that was becoming increasingly debauched. The motif of the gothic double is typically associated with the Doppelgänger, a Germanic word translating as a double goer. The OED defines Doppelgänger as ‘the apparition of a living person; a double, a wraith’. First used in the 1796 novel Siebenkäs, the word refers to the concept that everyone has a spiritual double. In contemporary popular culture, the Doppelgänger is typically portrayed as an evil twin, a motif that Stevenson makes use of with his characterization of Jekyll and Hyde. The foundation of the Doppelgänger can be found in the concept of symbolic doubles in religion and mythology, with the two-faced Roman god Janus, and Narcissus, who was killed by his love for his own image, which mirrors Dorian Gray’s own downfall. In Gothic literature, the Doppelgänger is a literary device used to show the externalization of the internal conflicts the mind plays out within the characters. The Doppelgänger represents the inner self, the primitive brain whose desires and wants must be contained and controlled. This is important to consider from a historical perspective, due to the repressive and strict Victorian social norms. As such, Gothic fiction authors made use of the motif to depict how anyone of any social standing could be hiding an alter ego, repressing their immoral and evil acts to conform to society. This is represented in both Wilde and Stevenson’s works. Gothic literature typically externalized the double self, for example through the decaying, ugly portrait of Dorian, hidden in the attic from societies judging eye. In this essay, I will explore the ways in which Wilde and Stevenson used the alter ego, how they conveyed the duality of good and evil, the significance of social status, sexuality, and setting.
The motif of the double is shown through the duality of good and evil in both Wilde and Stevenson’s novels. In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Jekyll and Hyde appear to be two very separate individuals throughout the novel, due to their contrasting natures and professions. They differ in their social standings, respectabilities, and rankings, with Jekyll being a well-known man of science and Hyde a degenerate. However, in reality, they are two separate entities that live in one body, as ‘Man is not truly one, but truly two’. Both Stevenson and Wilde show how the social boundaries between what is right and wrong become blurred. For example, Wilde uses the motif of the portrait to present the divided nature of man. On a surface level, the painting represents Dorian’s evil self. However, both good and evil are resonated within the picture, as it is in Dorian’s physical self.
Similarly, the motif of the double can be used in Gothic fiction to depict the duality of social class. Gothic authors such as Stevenson and Wilde made use of the double in their fin de siècle works, to show to the readers, both of the period and historically, that there can be both good and evil in everyone, and there isn’t much distinction between social classes if anyone is capable of wrongdoings. Gothic fiction had examined the idea of the sinister alter ego or double before on many occasions, yet Stevenson’s genius with Jekyll and Hyde was to show the dual nature not only of one man but also of society in general.
Furthermore, the role of the double in Gothic works of literature can be to highlight the duality of heterosexuality and homosexuality. This theory can be examined from a contextual point of view, as I believe both Stevenson and Wilde used the gothic double to depict their own double lives. While Stevenson’s is not proven, Wilde underwent trials for his homosexuality.