Victorian Gothic: double vision

As a finale for winter reading, the most terrifying stories of  all. The writers of nineteenth-century gothic fiction believed that they were confronting spectres more frightening than vampires or the ghosts of  headless horsemen: they were looking into their own psyches, at doubles of themselves, at ‘the monster within.’

In the literature of Victorian gothic, human evil is always more chilling than the supernatural kind. The archetypal story here is Robert Louis Stevenson’s unforgettable novella, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). Henry Jekyll is a respectable doctor who experiments with a potion that magically releases his ‘double’, the sinister Edward Hyde. Unlike Dr Jekyll, Mr Hyde is not inhibited by convention or morality; he can do as he pleases, and he seems to enjoy roaming the dark, foggy London streets at night, wreaking havoc wherever he goes. He is violent, vicious and animalistic:  the opposite of  the humane and intelligent doctor who created him.  But is he Jekyll’s antithesis, or is he his double – the uninhibited, immoral creature  that the doctor secretly longs to be?

The  Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) is also the story of a man who is cursed by his double. Dorian is a beautiful young man whose extreme vanity leads him to make what amounts to a pact with the devil: in exchange for his soul, he will be given eternal youth. As long as his portrait remains hidden, Dorian is safe from exposure – the only real evidence of his corruption, hidden behind his youthful face, is the ravaged appearance of his double, the picture of Dorian Gray. No wonder he goes to such extraordinary lengths to prevent the painting’s being seen: lies, deceit, murder…

Lastly, there are Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic tales about the evil inherent in ‘the double.’ Poe explores this theme in several of his stories ; perhaps the most memorable is ‘Ligeia’, with the fair-haired Lady Rowena and Ligeia herself,  her hair as black as ‘the raven wings of midnight’.  Then there’s  ‘William Wilson’, the story of a man pursued by his double and the famous and wonderful tale, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’. (This last one is the one that I would recommend if you want to challenge yourself with a really demanding literary  experience of the gothic double: ‘Usher‘ is riddled with dualities, from the characterization of  the fraternal twins, Roderick and Madeline, to the mirror images employed throughout the text.)


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