VICTORIAN METAMORPHOSES Analysing Nineteenth-Century Anxieties of Degeneration in British Fantastic Novels after 1859.
This study validates that the concept of metamorphosis served as a trope in nineteenth-century post-Darwinian fiction to display and explore anxieties of degeneration. Part I provides three historical investigations crucial to understand the literary analyses in the second part. In Part II three different genres of Victorian fiction and their respective ways of employing the concept of metamorphosis to exhibit anxieties of degeneration support Part I.
First, a linguistic investigation of the Victorian understanding of the word ‘metamorphosis’ proves that the term was part of the daily parlance describing instances of physical and figurative transformations. It is shown that the linguistic connotations, its internal tension between fact and fantasy, the natural and the potential supernatural, leave the readership to generate their own meaning of the word. This offers a fertile medium through which anxieties related to change might flourish. Part I also explains popularised contemporaneous scientific discourses about evolution and degeneration, highlighting that they were strongly interwoven with metamorphosis. The latter became indispensable in understanding scientific theories of the transmutation of the human species regarding physical, psychological, and social change. Finally, Part I illustrates that the Victorian concept of the child was based on a tension between the Quintessential child and the child as a primitive version of a potentially highly developed human. This ambiguity and the fact that the child embodies the most obvious phase of human transformation, are confirmed to be emblematic for theories of evolution and degeneration.
Part II demonstrates that as examples of Victorian Children’s Fantasy Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland educate a generation of child readers in the 1860s employing metamorphosis to warn about the potential existence of degeneration and the downfall of humanity. The child embodies the potential for a progressive or retrograde metamorphosis of the human with focus on the individual and allusions to the British nation. This study underlines that the child reader of the 1860s became the target readership of the late Victorian Gothic who were exposed to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. This part illustrates that the metamorphoses of the degenerate characters explore the potential degenerate within every single human being, arguing that any change is based on the individual choices made. The last chapter on Victorian vampire fiction shows that Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Richard Marsh’s The Beetle, and Florence Marryat's The Blood of the Vampire use metamorphosis to imagine a foreign invasion as source for a potential degeneration of the British nation. Hence, this study validates that in all three genres metamorphosis served as a tool to exhibit anxieties of degeneration.