“The main source of fear in the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Louis Stevenson and Angela Carter in repressed desire”. To what extent is this supported by Coleridge, Stevenson and Carter?
This essay will consider the main sources of fear in the works of these talented and rather colourful authors. The context that is, the social climate in which they penned their respective works is perhaps the key to understanding the premise of the fear, which permeates the works in question.
Sexual repression is a state in which a person is prevented from expressing their sexuality. Sexual repression is often associated with feelings of guilt or shame being associated with sexual impulses. What constitutes sexual repression is subjective and can vary greatly between cultures and moral systems. Sexual repression is at its fiercest when laws and principles of society forbid certain acts.
The gothic was a literary means by which writers expressed their views on issues such as sexuality and the state of society. Gothic novels where often wrtten during periods of political and social instability, revolution and war when people were most fearful of change; whether social or political. In a sense, the gothic was a way in which people’s fears were exploited and enhanced (as during times of revolution or social upheaval the gothic provided an escape). The idea of sexuality in our contemporary society is something celebrated, explored and even respected but in past era’s sexuality was a subject of great fear, strictest taboo and much shame. The 18th, 19th and 20th centuries have been periods in which the idea of the taboo and the repressed rose to unprecedented heights due to society’s virtuous and conformist attitudes. The French and American Revolution which saw the fall of British rule over America and the destruction of the monarchy in France were events that preceded the onslaught of gothic work. Christabel written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde written by Robert Louis Stevenson and ‘The Bloody Chamber’ written by Angela Carter where all written in periods when the idea of female sexuality and desire were being either argued against or repressed. “Carter has been seen critically as part of the new wave of contemporary women[…] The Bloody Chamber is a collection of books written in the form of fairy tales which delve into the idea of womanhood and what it truly represents; this story fights back against the criticisms from society which traditionally warn against women exploring and embracing their sexual identities. Christabel a story about a young girl who stumbles across a succubus upon a stroll through the forest and rescues, illustrates how the repression of sexuality leads to panic upon experiencing it. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde deals with the duality of self, the fulfilment of desire and how society ostracises individuals if they are seen as different or fearful in any sense.
These texts cannot be properly appreciated without some understanding of the social contexts in which the respective authors penned their works. Psychological as well as socio-economic considerations are essential to the reading of the literature.
Christabel was written towards the end of the Georgian period and while early Georgian England was characterised by debauchery and healthy, open attitudes towards sex (the Georgian’s definitely took pleasure in breaking the rules put into place by their puritanical ancestors), towards the latter part of the era the rise of evangelical Christianity, the prolonged war with France and the growing power of the middle classes saw the advent of a more sober and serious Britain. Perhaps this change in attitude accounts for Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1803, describing male-male love as “that very worst of all possible vices” when attempting to shield Shakespeare’s Sonnets against a homosexual interpretation. Some have suggested that he was a closet homosexual. Given his early beginning as the son of a vicar, repression of want and desire would have been a constant. It is also clear that though his later addiction to opium may have rendered him impotent, that sex and sexuality were never far from his thoughts.
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was written in Victorian England and Victorian morality was incomparable to the morality of Georgian Britain, and was the personification of sexual restraint, intolerance and a stringent code of behaviour. Nevertheless, the Victorian era was a time of many contradictions, such as the widespread cultivation of an outward appearance of dignity and restraint while at the same time the seedier side of human existence abounded not least in the form of fairy widespread prostitution and drug abuse and addiction. The ferociously homophobic Labouchere promoted the views the puritans and in 1885, England criminalised homosexuality; there were numerous trials relating to this criminal activity, not least the 1895 trial of Oscar Wilde.
The Bloody chamber was written and published in the 1970’s. And it is little surprising that Angela Carter an unapologetic feminist should pen these modern gothic tales to expose the repression of women, because although there has been momentous changes in the mindsets, conduct and laws concerning sexuality with sexual politics forming the nucleus of social commentary and debate, for many, nothing had really changed. They were on the outside looking in.
Angela Carters offerings through these non-fairy tales signpost the fact that women are sexually in the interests of exploitative purposes. She shows through her tales of sexual repression how sexism commands control of the subjugated contrary to any notions of liberation and natural sexual expression. She shows how female have been confined by their male masters. And the internment of sexual identity to fit long held notions many stemming from Stevenson’s Victorian period of perceived morality and self restraint, hard work and moral Puritanism as an expression of class domination.
Noteworthy is that the sexual freedom that was emerging in certain quarters was aptly named the sexual revolution tying in with the periods in which gothic becomes most prevalent and relevant, that is times of social conflict.
For progressives it is heralded as a time of revolutionary ferment which ushered in much needed social change, ushering in the civil rights movements, decolonisation, women’s liberation, gay & lesbian liberation, green and peace movements. For conservatives it has become a scapegoat to blame many contemporary problems upon. Issues such as pornography, marriage breakdowns, single parent families, welfare state dependancy, drugs and youth crime are all seen as having their origins in the “permissiveness” of the sixties. For the generation after the sixties, the love children of the baby boomers, it is often seen as a failed project which sustains their parents romanticisation of their youth prior to selling out.
Looked at in the socio-political context Dr Jekyll brings to the fore the disparity between middle class bourgeois subjugation of the shadowy side of society, that is finding expression for physical and emotional force allied with instinctual biological drives a kind of insurgence against the push for middle England uprightness. Mr Hyde, represents the those who live on the fringes of society the ostracised and disenfranchised – those who are suppressed because of their desires. The broad hush about sexuality in Victorian culture cultivated a corresponding muffle in literature. But instead of being entirely nonexistent, homosexual desire and activity emerged in heavily disguised forms, which epitomises how homosexuals insulated themselves from the backlash and vitriol of society, which would have been a really evident fear at a time when hanging because of convictions for homosexuality rose to unparalleled levels and were grossly publicised.
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ focuses more on the duality of an individual and ones innate desires on how we repress our more frightening characteristics. “But I was still cursed with my duality of purpose; and as the first edge of my penitence wore off, the lower side of me, so long indulged, so recently chained down, began to growl for license”. The “purpose” Jekyll maybe speaks of is society’s expectations of how a man with that social opulence is made to act and appear but how it is a mask over their true identity and desire. Although some critics have said Hyde is symbolic of the sexual desire of oneself and ones pursuit of one’s sexual conquests, Stevenson directly contradicts this and says “the harm was in Jekyll because he was a hypocrite, not because he was fond of women”. A way this was shown is the way in the novel; the limited appearance of a female was restricted to the young girl who Hyde tramples over, the maid who witnesses the death of Sir Danver Carew and Dr Jekyll’s maids. The lack of female character may have been a ploy by Stevenson to show the hidden homosexual nature between the men of the novel (Utterson, Lanyon, Jekyll and Enfield), this idea is further strengthened through the unconventional friendship of Utterson and Enfield which baffles the tertiary characters as well as the reader due to the stark differences between the two characters, Utterson’s rationality and Enfield’s wilder nature are ironic due to the routine fashion in which they go for walks. Some critics such as Nabokov reasons, “It has been suggested that Stevenson, ‘working as he did under Victorian restrictions,’ and not wishing to bring colours into the story alien to its monkish patterns, consciously refrained from placing a painted feminine mask upon the secret pleasure which Hyde indulged”. This critic is important as he highlights the lack of insight we are given into Hyde’s excursions therefore exposing us to the ambiguity of the sins that Hyde enjoyed in the seedy setting of Soho; which even in contemporary times is still an area of debauchery and moral panic furthermore Stevenson’s lack of female character adds so much more ideas of the sin in which Hyde indulges and even reinforces the immorality of his sins. Soho formally known as the French quarter gained its reputation of depravity in the late 19th century when the last of the respectable families moved away and the onslaught of Prostitutes, Pubs sand Opium dens invaded the area Stevenson was even known to frequently visit opium dens (which as a man of his profession) was a normal occurrence. The use of Soho as the dwelling place of Hyde is importantly used by Stevenson as Soho was seen as frightening to many due to the abundance of depravity there; this was to show the corruption of Hyde’s character and as Hyde represents the darker nature of Jekyll, he gives a sense of what went on within that area in terms of respectable men and women escaping to Soho to fulfil their desires that were socially unacceptable thus allowing them to retain their social standing by indulging in their personal sins away from their own homes. This ideal was a typical Victorian idea as the idea of sex and desire was shunned in open/polite society but behind closed doors adultery, homosexuality, drugs, alcohol, prostitution and even homosexual brothels were rife. Hyde’s character aptly exemplifies the point that so-called upstanding people almost always adopted a second nature when indulging in their carnal desire but made sure to keep them secret for fear of being found out.
Carter differs from the male writers who are the subject of this essay in that she used her characters to promote the idea of female liberation from the oppressive regimes and submissive natures that were forced onto them by society by emphasising the freedom and strength gained by going against the wishes of the oppressor and embracing true freedom. Carter also explores the idea of how fear was created by palpable desire. “I was aghast to feel myself stirring”. The fear the young girl feels over her sexual desire was not due to the Marquis himself but more to do with the social doctrines that enforce the idea of sexuality (especially in females) as being dangerous and bad. The Bloody Chamber protagonists (a succession of young girls) often demonstrate their fear of sex, sexuaity and innate desires, and Carter uses the characters to personify the ideal of a young girl not yet finished with puberty but still old enough to be classed as a woman but she makes the note of allowing them to be addressed as girls in order to further enhance their vulnerability and innocence “the young bride who had become that multitude of girls I saw in the mirror”. Carter’s use of “girls” is significant as her characters main issues are that they are unable to escape from a seemingly bad situation until they learn to embrace their latent sexual power. An example of this was in ‘The Company Of Wolves’ when the young girl or better yet young woman must shed her clothes (which represent the strictures of society) in order to gain her independence and take back her sexual identity. “What shall I do with my shawl”, “throw it into the fire dear one, you won’t need it again”. Beast, werewolves and so on often are representations of deep sexual desire and sexual power so by her asking him what to do with her clothing which in this case is the personification of society and him replying “into the fire” shows her succumbing to her sexual desire regardless of what repression society tried to place on her. The very idea of the wolf in the story is that they are only able to assume their wolf form when naked which further enhances the idea of clothes representing society. Feminist critics have criticised Carter for not going far enough “she could never imagine Cinderella with the Fairy Godmother” Patricia Dunker. but personally I believe even in the contemporary period Carter lived in she still wrote a story that was advanced for its time, indeed today’s contemporary society her stories still arouse shock and excitement at the explicitness of the description. Carter herself although she was a feminist writer did not label herself a feminist she believed that women as well as men were the cause of their enslavement. “The women do not connive to be enslaved but due to naivety and the chance of freedom they forget their freedom”. As explained above, the time the book was written (Late 1970’s) was a time of sexual enlightenment when more people were starting to explore more openly their sexuality and encouraged more vigorous feminist discourse and promiscuity, but the backlash of this has been brandished by the pandemic of AIDS. With high levels of reported cases among heterosexuals, women have been blamed and scolded for their exploration of sexuality; essentially women are branded whores as much for their promiscuity as for daring to push against the order of society. Like all human beings women desire to fit in, the trepidation of Carter’s characters in exploring with sex and the fulfilment of desire whilst not quite leading to ostracisation, is still though to a lesser extent, evident today
Christabel takes a different path from the other texts as it does not focus on mans duality or the empowerment of females but instead it looks at the fear that the exploration of sex leads to. Christabel’s naivety is typical of a gothic heroine as she is unaware of the true nature of Geraldine who embodies the fear of female sexuality personified in the form of a succubus a cold, calculating, demon who traditionally takes the form of a beautiful woman who seduces men which leads to the death of her victims. “The lady sank, belike through pain, And Christabel with might and main lifted her up, a weary weight, over the threshold of the gate”. In traditional gothic tales evil monster are not allowed to cross over thresholds without invitation and by Geraldine’s actions we are shown her true nature which she attempts to disguise with her apparel “There she sees a damsel bright, Dressed in a silken robe of white”. The use of the colour white is the gothic stereotype depicting a virginal maiden and is being used to show the intense level of deceit which Geraldine is using to gain favour with Christabel and to infiltrate the Castle. Geraldine’s sexual prowess becomes apparent when she manages to seduce Christabel but the skilful way in which Coleridge sets up the sex scene allows for the ambiguity of whether Geraldine was the one seducing Christabel or vice versa. “So half-way from the bed she rose, and on her elbow did recline”. Christabel role as the maiden is called into question as the pose Coleridge arranges her in is an highly sexualised position for someone who is supposed to be so innocent and it is this that give the audience a reason to believe that the sex between her and Geraldine is consensual.
Christabel epitomises the boundaries of innocence in her blindness to the existence of sin and vice and in her susceptibility to its effects. Christabel’s virtuousness shields her from the fact that something is awry and also to the fact of something, which a more worldly person would have known to fear. Ignorance dispenses with the fear that the characters of Jekyll and Hyde and the Bloody Chamber were all too familiar with.
Coleridge documented that his fears were set down in Christabel – he stated that his dreams were often haunted by frightening women, shape altering women. Apparently Coleridge chose not to complete the poem because of fear that he would be accused of moral turpitude., since to finish “Christabel” he would have had to further explore the sexual implications. Regardless of this it is clear that Christabel is paralysed through her inability to rise above the fright created by the reality of the situation.
This essay has illustrated how social and historic conditions can affect repression and the affect of social constraints on the psyche. The three authors deal with the fear created by sexual repression. Without a doubt fear can force one to adopt a new personality, or to accept the status quo no matter how bad or in the case of Christabel, fear can paralyse!