In this dissertation I explore the dynamics of how the definition of the human is established and subsequently challenged in both H.G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and R.L. Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886).
Late nineteenth-century Europe was a time and place where an exploration of the definition of what it means to be human was particularly uncomfortable. The structures that upheld the then accepted conceptions of the human were under assault by new scientific discourses such as Darwinist theories of evolution, criminal anthropology and degenerationism. I show how the anxieties that these discourses inspired are reflected in the texts, and also examine how the communities in the texts act to reinforce the collapsing definition of what it means to be human.
Victorian efforts to resolve this crisis of identity were mainly rooted in attempts to classify the natural world and to find or create some form of stable categorical distinction between the ‘human’ and the Other, or the not-human. The nature of the Other varied widely but manifested in terms of species, race, gender and class, to name but a few categories. The mechanisms through which humans, both as individuals and as communities, created and maintained their ‘humanity’ is examined through the use of theories of the liminal, from Anton van Gennep ( 1960) to Homi Bhabha (1994). The reasons for the fear of the liminal characters are explored through Julia Kristeva’s (1982) notion of the abject – a phenomenon which arises in a confusion of the boundaries and distinctions between the subject and the object, the Self and the Other. Using Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s (1996) ‘Monster Theory’, I examine what the texts reveal about the society in which the authors were writing and what the appeal or horror of each monster’s particular type of liminality might have been for contemporary readers.
In my conclusion I show that the fears and anxieties in Wells’s and Stevenson’s texts are still extant today. The monsters in the texts reflect changing conceptions of what it means to be human. By examining the nature of the fear that these monsters inspire, one can better understand both the readers of the time and the origins of the modern understanding of what it means to be human, what it means to be Other, and the realisation that, ultimately, perhaps we all exist somewhere betwixt and between.