Double and Identity in Victorian Gothic Fiction

The doubling of central characters is a crucial dramatic device, common in all forms of literature. It allows the author, poet or playwright to present a wider and more colourful picture of humanity. In Victorian gothic fiction where there is often an emphasis on questions of human morality, authors tend to let their monsters and villains personify the darker, unchecked side of human consciousness while their heroes exhibit more virtuous qualities such as reason and restraint. This almost automatic opposition of separate moral identities in gothic fiction is important because each part helps to qualify and add depth to its counterpart.

Milton understood that we must first acquaint ourselves with darkness to appreciate the essence and beauty of light. But by necessity, a character that is in someway defined by contrast with another will bear connections with that other as well. Excluding moral standards, in all other ways, villains will often hugely resemble heroes. Indeed, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are one and the same person. For this reason, we will find that the identities of doubled characters in gothic fiction are fascinating because each character is indistinct. In fact, indefiniteness seems to become the definition of a double, because their personas spill into each other. For instance there are times when Count Dracula himself can appear as lonely and misunderstood as Van Helsing, or moments when Van Helsing betrays a glimmer of something sinister.

So what was Stoker’s purpose in doubling his eponymous fiend with Van Helsing? One might be that Van Helsing’s virtues make Dracula seem all the more diabolical. Perhaps Van Helsing is meant to make us hate Dracula. However, like the Devil of Paradise Lost, the Count’s calculated wickedness in some way works to make him more attractive to the reader. He is one of the most memorable literary figures of all time; an iconic creation of horror fantasy and we cannot help but succumb to his gothic charm. Van Helsing is much less charming - his strange behaviour, convoluted turns of speech and opinionated assertions can become irksome. So then, much less than repulse us with evil and seduce us with goodness Stoker’s doubled characters show us that we can fall foul of the very opposite.

Arguably Dracula’s and Van Helsing’s deepest connection concerns their obsession with life’s blood. The blood of a pure virgin is for both men the most important thing in the world, synonymous with the purpose of their existence. Van Helsing sees blood as a commodity that determines the measure of someone’s love. Accordingly, he assures Dr Seward that he drew more blood from Arthur because Lucy is his fiancé and the love of his life. Van Helsing provides life’s blood, performing operations which he melodramatically describes as the ‘transfer from full veins of one to the empty veins which pine for him.’ Dracula on the other hand is the intrusive instrument of death. His wickedness is defined by contrast to Helsing’s supply, as theft and insidious robbery. There is a strong sexual allegory within this theme. It falls to imply non-consensual sex, or rape and the deflowering of a maiden’s virginity. Virginity is implicitly the only thing Helsing regards as pure, and untainted. It is an ideal of innocence that should form man’s every inspiration to act. Therefore it is Mina’s screams which detach him from his lustful infatuation with the vampires and resume his mission. Similarly, he admits that it is for Lucy alone he visits Dr Seward and at the end of the novel he asserts that sole grounds for man’s action needs no motivation other than to preserve the beauty and love of women: ‘We want no proofs. This boy (Mina’s son) will some day know what a brave and gallant woman his mother is. Later on he will understand how some men so loved her, that they did dare much for her sake.

An important first consideration in the nature of identity is how Stoker’s presents these double characters to us. Count Dracula steals the show. And yet, to continue the metaphor; he spends very little time on stage. Save three chapters when we are guests in his castle, the rest of the novel is only haunted by his presence rather than occupied with it. Van Helsing on the other hand is very much at the centre of much of the action. Coupled with this, during the length of the novel, the two characters seem to travel on inverse courses in the reader’s perspective of them. The book’s beginning gives us a comprehensive introduction to Dracula - his nation, his heritage, his home. We receive a lengthy description of him physically and in his engagements with John Harker he is particularly conversational, ‘chatting and asking questions on every conceivable subject hour after hour’. From the end of Chapter 4 however, Dracula disappears from our close contact. His whereabouts is never assured. He is referred to only in the speculations of other characters or in gossip and rumours and he appears only in insubstantial visions, brief sightings, dreams, or fleetingly to Mina under hypnosis. By total contrast, Helsing is not introduced until chapter 9 and very briefly as an almost suspiciously well learned, generous man from Amsterdam. When we first meet him in person, he speaks practically in riddles and Dr Seward calls him ‘reticent’, confident that he will ‘speak plainly enough when the time comes’. Dr Seward is correct; during the latter half of the novel Helsing becomes much more forthcoming. He makes the major decisions at the centre of the action, leads the party of vampire hunters and he has the very last comment of the novel. In sum, Dracula moves from clarity to obscurity whereas Helsing moves from obscurity to clarity. The characters’ composure changes in a similar direction. For the first half of the novel Dracula is optimistic and on the offensive, travelling to a foreign environment to satisfy his thirst for blood, Helsing on the other hand is shaken and his methods are defensive and preventative. During the second half of the novel control of the action sways and Helsing becomes the attacker, travelling to a foreign environment to vanquish his foe, whereas Dracula, exasperated, takes flight.    

The paths and motivations of these two characters determine the impetus of the plot and the fate of humankind and yet they are always diverging. It is not exactly clear why Stoker chose to offset them like this. It does however conform to the traditional structure of the forces of good and evil doing battle for man’s soul. Towards the end of the novel Helsing reiterates the notion that their fortune lies in ‘God’s hands’. Helsing’s lectures turn to Christian preaching and his ultimate prevalence over Dracula is also surely meant to indicate the importance of faith.

There is more at work here however. Dracula is always remote to us. As the reader we can always feel his presence but he very rarely confronts us directly in a tangible and solid form especially during the daylight hours. Dracula is always described with a sense of the abstract and mysterious - he is ephemeral and unreal existing in some kind of separate reality. There are many occasions when Stoker implies a visit from Dracula but describes it in such a way that it becomes indistinguishable from a dream or a hallucination. So Mina Harker’s sighting of him who appears as a ‘sort of pillar of cloud in the room, through the top of which…the light of the gas was shining like a red eye’. She concludes that it was a figment of an overactive imagination; ‘typical of the way that waking thoughts become merged in or continued in dreams’. On another occasion, at Dracula’s house in Carfax, Jonathan Harker experiences a vision of some sort - the pale face of Dracula in the darkness, but again, he assumes it is a trick of the imagination. The Count hangs just beyond the immediate - tainting the background and occupying a place in the reader’s consciousness. One of the most remarkable ways Stoker achieves this is by saturating the text with intimations and allusions that amount to little on their own, but together convey an almost subliminal sense of the macabre and a strange intuition of Dracula’s presence. So, very often but not in reference to Dracula, Stoker mentions that his characters had an ‘abnormal thirst’, for instance the sailors are ‘better fellows when they have been no more thirsty. They say much of blood and bloom.’ ‘Blood’ is a word which continually reappears in all its various connotations, but Stoker even makes abject use of the word ‘stake’. Dracula exists in some meta-reality. He is largely incomprehensible. It is self-evident when others try to describe him physically - they cannot express what they see satisfactorily but resort to using superlatives or repeating themselves for instance Jonathan Harker’s confused and reaching summary of the Count’s face is ‘a strong, a very strong aquiline… with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own prefusion.’

This entire presentation of Dracula is in direct contrast with Helsing who very much occupies a place in the present and the immediate - in the real physical world of tangible things. In addition, Helsing is continually responsible for drawing his friend’s straying thoughts - wrought with mad fantasy and horror, back to a stable conscious awareness. For instance in chapter 22 following a lengthy discursion from Helsing, Jonathan Harker remarks; ‘The terrible despair of Mina’s face became relaxed in thought. There was hope in such good counsel. Mina took a growing interest in everything.’ The figure of Mina and her flirting mentality switching between hope and despair is pivotal in exploring both Dracula’s and Helsing’s effects upon her psyche. Helsing is pragmatic and practical. Again Harker remarks; ‘As usual Van Helsing had thought of everyone else and was prepared with an exact ordering of our work.’ Where Dracula is out and out cloaked in a stench of death and about him hangs a ‘deadly atmosphere’, Helsing is a figure who emphasises again and again the distinction between life and death and the importance of living and the waking world as oppose to sleep: ‘No you must live! You must struggle and strive to live, though death would seem a boon unspeakable. You must fight death himself!’              

Most evident in this clear thematic distinction between Dracula and Helsing is a nod to much of the psychology and philosophy of Victorian times - the notion that man is a vessel of a thinking, reasoning, conscious mind that defers to principle and morality, offset and wrought by an untamed, dark, unconscious ruled by passion and desire. Whether or not Stoker had come into close contact with the work of Freud, this idea of the division of the human soul seemed to be a philosophy that permeated Europe and can certainly be traced in this novel. Dracula is a manifestation of the unconscious id, dreamlike, unreal, unknowable, whereas Helsing is the conscious superego, active and rational.

In the short novel, ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, Robert Louis Stevenson drew even more significance to this notion with his central characters. Jekyll and Hyde are distinct identities, yet they are two fractures of a single identity as well. Mr Hyde is a dark subconscious aspect of Jekyll - the manifestation of his desires and inclination towards acts of evil unchecked by the voice of reason. Jekyll does admit that he has suppress within his own soul latent carnal urges: ‘Many a man would have even blazoned such irregularities as I was guilty of; but from the high views that I had set before me, I regarded and hid them with an almost morbid sense of shame.’ This passage is sinister because it is a self-admission that his refined manners and recourse to civility is actually a façade. The profound questions Jekyll and his alter-ego raise then, are if Hyde cannot be forgiven his wickedness, can Jekyll be forgiven for harbouring such a wicked side to his character? If indeed, duplicity is integral in the human psyche then Hyde is merely part of a larger composition, which is outwardly good and so should perhaps not be treated as a separate entity. Jekyll’s argument is compelling because by separating the two entities, ‘these incongruous faggots bound together… in the agonised womb of consciousness’ though he would produce something vile and evil, he would also produce a pure example of goodness ‘no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil’.

Stevenson’s doubling of Jekyll and Hyde is provided for the reader at a distanced perspective. In the same way Stoker constructs the plot of ‘Dracula’, we move from a remote perception of the evil identity into increasing knowledge of the good identity who in turn educates us as to the whole. Jekyll is only perfectly clear in our consciousness in the very last chapter when he gives a comprehensive description of his motivations throughout. Hyde however, for the most part remains ambiguously evil - he is described as lurching and simian, in direct contrast with Jekyll’s upright and gentlemanly disposition. Hyde’s complexion gives ‘an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation.’ Mr Utterson like Jonathan Harker when he confronts Dracula, is positively confounded as to how to express what he sees: ‘ “There must be something else…There is something more if I could find a name for it. God bless me, the man seems hardly human! Something troglodytic shall we say?”’ It is interesting that he should use the term troglodytic - which must mean pertaining to a species of hominid which live deep underground below the earth’s surface, in relative blackness. Hyde in physical as well as metaphorical, even in name, evinces a sense of the hidden, the darker recesses of the human soul - unknowable and impossible to articulate with a conscious language. It is significant therefore, that Jekyll’s physical description provided only two or three pages afterwards, no doubt to emphasise the contrast, is neatly and effortlessly illustrated as a ‘well made, smooth faced man of fifty with something of a slyish cast perhaps but every mark of capacity and kindness.’ Again the language here intimates something much more than merely the physical. Jekyll’s ‘smooth face’ suggests something superficial. It is like a veneer, allegorical of his well kept facade. Equally, the word slyish has undertones of covering up a quality of deceptiveness and he bears only the ‘mark of kindness’ not the certification.        

To return to Dracula and Helsing, though, unlike Jekyll and Hyde they are very much separate entities; there are times when Helsing might be seen to betray something of the darkness and unchecked passions of his enemy. For instance once in chapter 10 we are told he ‘raised his foot to stamp in anger, but the instinct of his life and all the long years of habit stood to him and he put it down again’. Such allusions suggest that Helsing, like Jekyll, is not without a darker side, but has become capable at suppressing it. Elsewhere, Helsing displays the faintest tints of Dracula’s lusting for the flesh. He is briefly overcome with desire when he encounters one of the female vampires asleep in her coffin:

‘She was so fair to look at, so radiantly beautiful, so exquisitely voluptuous, that the very instinct of man in me, which calls some of my sex to love and to protect one of hers, whirled with new emotion.’

Quite clearly, Helsing is not spotless but a duplicity of man as Jekyll would have it with an authoritative super-ego which can keep his passion in check. Elsewhere, Helsing’s emotions get the better of him, bursting into hysterical laughter directly following the funeral of Lucy. When quizzed, his efforts to explain himself are rather poor and leave Dr Seward dumbfounded. Such marks of eccentricity can give Helsing the appearance of a madman whose strict principles and devout faith prevent the darker side of his character from taking hold. Interestingly, madness obsesses him. He remarks early on in the novel that all of the earth’s creations are mad in the eyes of God. Just as Helsing’s character reveals aspects, which contend with the natural view of him as an entirely honourable hero, Dracula too suffers from a type of criminal madness that might earn our sympathies. When Dr Seward asks Helsing to explain his hysterical laughter at some irony of the funeral, his response reveals something unknown in his past which may have formed the extent of his character:

‘If you could have looked into my heart then when I want to laugh, if you could do so when the laugh arrived…maybe you would pity me most of all’.

There is some suggestion that Helsing has suffered painfully in want of love. He alludes to it again when he encourages Lucy to speak by saying; ‘the young do not tell themselves to the young, but to the old, like me, who have known so many sorrows and the causes of them.’

Why then, Van Helsing’s most intimate connection with Dracula may be a sense of loneliness and detachment. Dracula himself alludes to a troubling sensation of loneliness and alien sense of otherness with a sensitivity that evokes a type of pity in the reader:

‘The common people know me, and I am master. But a stranger in a strange land, he is no one. Men know him not, and to know not is to care not for. I am content if I am like the rest, so that no man stops if he sees me, or pauses in his speaking if he hears my words.’

This speech from the Count has traces of mournfulness and a pitiful longing to experience a type of belonging and equality with his fellow man. It is with the same resigning melancholy as Helsing that he refers to the painful station of his life and the suffering he has endured in his history:

‘Ah sir, you dwellers in the city cannot enter in the feelings of the hunter…There is reason that all things are as they are and did you see with my eyes and know with my knowledge, you would perhaps better understand’. 

Van Helsing and Dracula are best interpreted as misunderstood. Dracula, though presented as wicked, is burdened with the curse of the hunter - his attempts to find companionship are doomed. He might gain much more of a sympathy were he given a voice in this novel, a journal of his own perhaps, but probably Stoker realised too well that this was a danger and might have interrupted with his final message of the prevalence of Christian morality. The two characters seem to confirm that the world is largely an empty place, soulless place without the connection of others. Both seem wrought by a division within their very soul that cannot be quenched with restraint or desire.

Bibliography


•    Stevenson, Robert Louis, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Penguin Popular Classics, 1994, London.

•    Stoker, Bram Dracula, Oxford Classics, 1998, London.

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