Fin de Siècle Representations of Drug Use
Critical study of Victorian Gothic literature currently experiences a dearth of scholarship on fin de siècle British cultural anxieties surrounding drugs, drug use, and drug users. The thematic significance of the drug user, poised on the threshold of the human and animal, should be of the deepest concern to scholars and critics seeking to comprehend the implications of Victorian scientific discourse for popular Gothic fiction. Furthermore, representations of drug users and drug use in Victorian Gothic literature are a significant phenomenon of cultural, humanistic discourse for those interested in pursuit of the Derridean “question of the animal,” which Carrie Rohman identifies as Derrida’s concern with “a certain recalcitrant humanism in Western metaphysical thought,” that of the mind/body duality of the Cartesian “Enlightenment subject” (121). This inquiry, I believe, inherently concerns perceptions of the drug user and drug use, considering the ontological implications of emergent scientific discourse in the later half of the nineteenth century. For the purpose of this essay, I will focus on Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and H. G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau in order illuminate how their portrayal of drug use, drug users, and animality is exemplary of the boundary maintained by fin de siècle culture separating the human from the animal, and how the transgression of this boundary engenders stigmatization and prohibition. Through a blending of human animal studies (HAS) and science studies, I will examine the following: drugs as technology in which the human, desiring to reiterate their humanity, becomes animal; drug use as a paradoxical and contradictory space of humanizing and animalizing; drug users as liminal beings who traverse the boundary between the human and the animal.
The boundary between the human and the animal, interrogated in the tradition of humanist rational discourse by Derrida in The Animal That Therefore I Am, is determined to be an ontological problem that relies on fundamentally essentializing assumptions (Calarco 4-5). In deconstructing, and decentering, humanity as a linguistic construct rooted in rational, humanist Enlightenment thinking, Derrida establishes the notion of “technic,” both technology and knowledge, that separates the human from the animal (The Animal That Therefore I Am 5). The concept of technic is introduced as Derrida ponders human nakedness as a social construct from which clothes emerge: “clothing derives from technics. . . . Man would be the only one to have invented a garment to cover his sex. He would be man only to the extent that he was able to be naked” (5). According to Derrida, humanity depends upon technology in order to establish and differentiate themselves from the animal. Derrida further develops the notion of technic in terms of human knowledge by discussing the term in relation to Promethean “fire,” the mythological first technology (20). Technic, encompassing the knowledge and technology that humanity can wield, belongs among Derrida’s list of “what is proper to man,” all of which, in part, justify and perpetuate “his subjugating superiority over the animal” (45). Thus, just as clothes are situated within the discourse of nakedness and fire is situated as mythological discourse, I contend that drugs, as a form of emergent biotechnology, are a technic situated within scientific discourse. However, I believe that it will become clearer as my argument progresses that drugs are a biotechnology inhabiting a volatile and contradictory space in discourse in which they contain indeterminate possibilities of simultaneously humanizing and animalizing the user. This contradiction reveals drug use as a point of cultural fracturing of the ideological scaffolding maintaining the arbitrary and failing human/animal binary.
At the end of the nineteenth century, definitions of humanity began to destabilize as the rapid discovery of numerous scientific advancements permeated British popular culture, enabling new fears of the unknown to take root in the European psyche. The publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859 and The Descent of Man in 1871 presented new challenges to human-centered thought. In “Burning Out the Animal: The Failure of Enlightenment Purification in H. G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau,” Carrie Rohman aptly characterizes the impact of Darwinian thought on British subjectivity: “Darwin’s insistence that differences between humans and other animals are differences of degree rather than kind radically problematized the traditional humanist abjection of animality, particularly in its purified Enlightenment form” (122). This dissolving difference between the animal and the human threatened humanist stability, derived from Enlightenment metaphysics, that numerous binaries of British identity and social structure depended upon, and Victorian Gothic fiction manifests these cultural anxieties through the manipulation of Gothic conventions (Rohman 121). Referring to the monstrous transformations of The Island of Dr. Moreau as exemplary of British cultural anxieties emerging from evolution, Rohman further explains that these evolutionary theories subsequently gave rise to theories of degeneracy, which she characterizes as “a Darwinian nightmare of the evolutionary continuum, in which animals becomes human—and more horrifically—humans become animals” (122).
Darwin’s theories were not the only scientific advancements to threaten humanist notions of subjectivity dominating Victorian culture: the development of early neurology further destabilized the human/animal binary. In Popular Fiction and Brain Science in the Late Nineteenth Century, Anne Stiles examines the cultural implications surrounding another scientific advancement of the 1870s known as “cerebral localization,” the knowledge that differentiates which parts of the brain were responsible for different human functions, placing the brain at the center of human experience: “Cerebral localization experiments . . . challenged the possibilities of free will or an extra-corporeal soul” (2). Considering that Victorian ideology depended upon Enlightenment humanism, the challenge cerebral localization poses to the mind/body binary is a challenge inherently connected with the stability of the human/animal binary. If the functioning of the human mind is localized within the physical organ of the brain, then the human is subject to the same scientific determinism responsible for the dissolution of boundary between the human and the animal within the dominant discourse of scientific empiricism. Thus far, through discussion of Derrida, Rohman, and Stiles, I have established that the human/animal binary was an increasingly complex and vulnerable ideological assumption, and this assumption shaped representations of drugs and drug use in Victorian Gothic fiction.
The Gothicized representation of drugs and drug use emerges from their status as an indeterminate technic in Victorian culture, informed by scientifically influenced cultural anxieties surrounding the introduction of foreign drugs into England. Debbie Harrison describes the latter half of the nineteenth century as “a period in which major new drugs were introduced, including morphine, cocaine, and heroin” (55). Harrison further explains that with the new influx of drugs came the first British drug regulations with the Poison and Pharmacy Act of 1868 (55). As drugs began to enter the legal discourse of British culture, their use, benefits, and dangers placed them in the cross-hairs of degenerative discourse and spurred Gothicized representations in fiction. Yet, accompanying the influx of these foreign drugs is the American discovery of anesthesia (Mann 440). According to R. D. Mann’s Modern Drug Use: An Enquiry on Historical Principles, the most “epoch-making” discovery in the realm of biotechnology was the widespread use of anesthesia to revolutionize surgery toward the end of the nineteenth century (440-44). Without anesthesia, “the full measure of success” in surgery could not have happened (444). The use of anesthesia and the advancements in surgery coincided with the vivisections that led to the discovery of cerebral localization (Stiles 1-2). Although Western neurology did not begin to localize which regions of the brain were responsible for which physiological actions until the 1870s, drugs have historically and linguistically occupied a space of ambiguity. In “Plato’s Pharmacy,” Derrida points out this ambiguity in the problematic translation of Greek word for drug, pharmakon, which denotes the dual possibility of “remedy” and “poison” (97-98). This duality situates drugs in a liminal space where the possibility of wellness is always threatened by the presence of Death: a duality that can be easily transferred to the human/animal binary. The threatening, liminal nature of drugs makes their representation a topic of Gothic concern, whose generic conventions explore the boundaries of cultural fears, anxieties, and repressions.
The representation of drugs in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Island of Dr. Moreau differs significantly; however, their representation concerns cultural fears of the human/animal and evolution/degeneracy binaries through the failure of biotechnology to serve as humanizing technic to reinforce these binaries. The first, and primary, failure of drugs as technic occurs as Jekyll, driven by “imperious desire” for knowledge, attempts to utilize scientific discourse to explore the “duplicity” of man (Stevenson 78). The genesis of Jekyll’s transformative drug emerges from the method of scientific inquiry gone astray; given his theory, Jekyll searches for the specific chemicals: “certain agents [he] found to have the power to shake and to pluck back that fleshy vestment” (79). The manner in which Stevenson Gothicizes the form of the case study magnifies the drug as the location of humanist failure, where Jekyll’s desire to pass beyond the human only reveals the animal within the human. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde uses the drug as site of degenerative transformation, and the critical location of the drug proves to reveal that the traversing of the human/animal, degenerative/evolution boundary depends upon increasingly degrading notions of humanity.
Paradoxically, the absence of anesthetic drugs in the vivisections of Dr. Moreau reveals a concurrent failure of the drug as technic. Rohman argues that “Wells’s portrait of Moreau emphasizes the constructedness of the Enlightenment subject by suggesting that the transcendence achieved by the rational human requires a certain intense and artificial technology” (126). Moreau’s experiment is marked by the absence of anesthesia, the drug that permitted the advancements in surgery from which vivisection developed. Moreau, driven by a similar desire to Jekyll’s to move beyond the human, focuses his experiments on transcending sensation through the purposeful absence of anesthesia: “pain and pleasure – they are for us so long as we wriggle in the dust” (Wells 75). Moreau’s obsession with the boundaries of the human, which he situates in “the human form,” is a product of happenstance: he “had chosen that form by chance” (73). The arbitrariness of Moreau’s experiments illuminates the human/animal binary when his scientific philosophy and definition of the human depend upon bodily denial. The physical torture of Moreau’s animal subjects in the absence of anesthesia in an attempt to “humanize the animals” ultimately results in experiments whose unbearable cruelty dissolves any differentiation between animal and human pain. This dissolution is expressed in Prendick’s narrative as his perception describes the pathetic impact caused by the cry of the puma: “It was if all the pain in the world had found a voice” (38). The decision not to utilize an aesthesia reveals a failure of technic to reproduce a concrete notion of the human: Prendick can no longer effectively categorize expressions of pain.
Not only does the representation and omission of drugs and drug use bear significant weight upon the human/animal binary, the representation of the drug user displays fundamentally dehumanizing assumptions about the individual. Before I can discuss the representations of drug users in Stevenson and Wells—specifically, the representation of Jekyll/Hyde and Montgomery—I believe it is necessary to consider the implications of addiction discourse in terms of the Derridean notion of humanizing technic. Here the emergent discourse of drug addiction, a Victorian technic, responds to the ontological threat to the human/animal binary posed by drugs’ status as an indeterminate emergent biotechnology. Susan Zieger, in Inventing the Addict, establishes the discourse of addiction as a historically contingent construct, one that emerges during the late nineteenth century and merges with, and is sometimes indistinguishable from, other discourses of alterity, including race, gender, and sexuality (9-19). However, I believe ideologically underlying all of these converging discourses of alterity is the construction of the human/animal binary, which I will explore further through considering the animalized representation of Hyde, a drug user Zieger classifies as an “addict” (168). Jekyll compares his unreasonable desire to become Hyde to addiction by likening it to the manner in which “a drunkard reasons with himself upon his vice” (Stevenson 86). The transformation the drug induces depends upon “the animal within” Jekyll, and, in turn Jekyll, and Hyde, depend upon the drug to traverse the border of the human and the animal in London society (88). Engendered specifically through Jekyll’s drug use, Hyde’s animality is exemplary of a fundamental rupture in the human/animal binary instigated by the dissemination of scientific discourse into the landscape of Victorian popular fiction.
The degenerative transformation of Jekyll into Hyde, representative of a drug user’s descent into addiction, situates drug users as liminal beings that traverse the human/animal boundary. The transgression of this boundary takes on an insidious position because the drug user’s descent into addiction happens within society, and in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, even learned men of high propriety—doctors and lawyers—are vulnerable to degeneration through drug use. This anxiety of degeneration caused by drug use is expressed in the text when Lanyon witnesses Hyde transform into Jekyll, an experience he can only conceive of in terms of resurrection: “like a man restored from death” (Stevenson 77). Lanyon’s perception displays the horror of Jekyll’s bodily indeterminacy, in which he is both a doctor, a force of objective subjectivity, and Hyde, an animalized subject (83). This is a horror of what Mario Ortiz-Robles describes as “the atavistic animality located within every individual” (14). Poole describes to Utterson his experience of shock upon witnessing a masked Hyde in Jekyll’s laboratory: “the masked thing like a monkey jumped among the chemicals and whipped into the cabinet, it went down my spine like ice” (Stevenson 65). Ortiz-Robles describes Poole’s animalistic comparison as implying “that Hyde’s inhumanity is categorical in a biological rather than a moral sense” (13). Moreover, I contend that the sentence also implies that Hyde’s biological inhumanity depends upon the transformative power of chemical biotechnology and the location within the laboratory. The aberrant, erratic movement of Hyde is understood by Poole “among the chemicals,” and in the laboratory Hyde is animalized because Hyde ingests the chemicals; for Poole, the socially appropriate use of the chemicals would be Jekyll’s scientific manipulation. This displacement of Hyde for Jekyll causes Poole to comprehend Hyde’s behavioral aberration as fundamentally non-human, and, as I will show further, Poole’s words are imbued with the desire, caused by latent anxiety, to articulate, and thus construct, the human/animal binary.
Additionally, in the other instances where Hyde is described in “The Last Night,” Hyde’s voice and suffering is described in explicitly non-human terms. Poole describes the “it” living in the cabinet to be crying out for “some sort of medicine” (62-63). When Poole describes the crying again he explicitly animalizes Hyde’s expression of pain by saying how Hyde cried “out like a rat” (64). Here the shift from “monkey” to “rat” indicates how Poole categorically minimizes Hyde in his animal hierarchy as he approaches his moment of climactic dominance through violence. Hyde’s suffering, which Poole identifies as some sort of chemical dependence, is purposely distanced from the qualities of the human and placed in linguistically subjugating animalized terminology. Hyde’s final vocalization as Poole strikes the ax-blow that kills him is “a dismal screech, as of mere animal terror” (66). The “animal terror,” an amorphous generalization of organic sentient beings, is not verbalized by any of the characters but is described by the narrator, permitting the expression to demonstrate a reflective echo of Poole’s inner animality as he forcibly erases the animal within (both Jekyll and himself). The final physical description of Hyde’s dead body is the narrator’s description of him as a “man” with “the crushed vial in hand,” about which Utterson thinks: “the body of a self-destroyer” (67). Hyde’s descriptive indeterminacy wavers between the human and the animal, but the indeterminacy is amplified by his marked status as a drug user, whose representation has been consistently and unequivocally negative and dehumanizing.
Even as Jekyll writes his full statement of the case, he transitions from humanizing language surrounding the relationship between himself and Hyde to animalized rhetoric, a linguistic transition that exemplifies the fragility of the human/animal binary. When Jekyll first sees himself as Hyde in the mirror, he recognizes “evil,” “deformity and decay,” but “was conscious of no repugnance, rather a leap of welcome. It seemed natural and human” (81). However evil Jekyll perceived Hyde to be, he still considered him among the “ranks of mankind” (81). Only after Jekyll recognizes his dependence on the chemical, which he describes as a fall into “slavery,” and his overwhelming desire to become Hyde, does Jekyll come to consider Hyde in animalized terms (81). As Jekyll composes the narrative, he does so with the looming knowledge that he is transforming back into Hyde, an explicitly animalized transition (81). When Jekyll spontaneously turns back into Hyde in the park, establishing Hyde as the dominant subjectivity, he specifically attributes the transition to “the animal within me licking the chops of memory” (88). At that moment, the drug, remaining the same chemical consistency, assumes a new role as antidote, remedy, and humanizer for the first time in the narrative (88).
As the drug becomes attributed with humanizing qualities, Jekyll, making a last attempt to humanize through language, perceives Hyde in increasingly instable, dehumanized terms: Hyde is “nothing human,” “hellish but inorganic,” a “temporary suicide,” “ape-like” (90-92). Through writing, Jekyll latches onto the fragile human/animal binary as he feels his “humanity” slipping away with the coming transformation into Hyde. This humanizing attempt occurs as he situates all of Hyde’s qualities as characteristic of a non-human creature. Jekyll is only able to compose his statement of the case, which is also his statement of his humanity, “under the influence of the last old powders” (92). The drugs, which had awakened the beast within him, now grant the animal the ability to write, and through writing, Jekyll attempts to erase the animal. This erasure inhabits the scientific testimony of the case study, and within the form of scientific discourse, the anxieties resulting from the rupturing of the human/animal binary are made salient.
Out of a desire to write a definitive statement of humanity, Prendick, faced with the horrific vivisecting experiments that turn animals into Beast People, obsessively participates in constructing definitions of the human in order to separate himself from the animal. Prendick composes his autobiographical account of Moreau’s island upon return to civilization after he can no longer differentiate himself from animals: “I may have caught some of the natural wildness of my companions” (Wells 130). “The terror of that island” has fundamentally altered Prendick and dissolved his ability to perceive the human/animal binary: when he looks about his “fellow man,” he only sees “the animal . . . surging up through them” (130). Recognizing the “animal within,” Prendick isolates himself from “cities and multitudes” to devote his time to activities, primarily scientific pursuits, he believes will humanize him: “reading,” “experiments in chemistry,” and “the study of astronomy” (131). Out of “the hope” that he has maintained his humanity, Prendick, anchoring himself in a narrow definition of humanity, lives in complete isolation, relying on scientific discourse to humanize. It is this isolation and inability to differentiate between the human and the animal throughout the narrative that, I believe, illuminates Prendick’s obsessive desire to establish hierarchies of humanity among not only the Beast People but among the other humans in his presence. Within Prendick’s construction and maintenance of the human/animal binary, he situates himself, as “an abstainer,” on the top of the human hierarchy by dehumanizing the alcohol use of Montgomery and the boat captain, Davis (30).
Representative of cultural anxieties surrounding the rupture in the human/animal binary, Prendick’s perception of drug use and the drug user displays the same characteristic indeterminacy to humanize and animalize articulated in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The first drug that Prendick encounters, and ingests himself, is the one given to him by Montegomery: “a dose of scarlet stuff, iced. It tasted like blood” and made him “feel stronger” (10). Although not explicitly stated, Montgomery most likely gives him some form of alcohol, considering his consistent reliance on it throughout the narrative. Regardless of what chemical Prendick consumes, the drug is likened to blood, which directly connects drug use with the cannibalism that he had narrowly escaped on the dinghy. Carrie Rohman explains how “humankind’s participation in animality is recurrently coded in figures of ingestion and cannibalism” (122), and with reference to the “scarlet stuff” that tastes “like blood,” she claims that “Prendick’s basic physical need to eat and drink is realigned with cannibalism and therefore animalized” (123). While Rohman astutely points out how Prendick’s needs are contextually animalized, I find it significant that this occurs with drug use, since drug use inhabits the radically indeterminate space that humanizes and animalizes. When Prendick dehumanizes alcohol users on Ipecacuanha, he describes the captain Davis multiple times as a “brute” (Wells 16, 23) in direct reference to his drunkenness, and “brute” is the same term he uses to refer to the dogs on the boat (15). Later when Montgomery goes on his drunken “bank holiday,” Prendick thinks “he was in truth half akin to these Beast Folk, unfitted for human kindred” (109). Even Montgomery himself discusses alcohol dependence through an animalized metaphor, wishing he too had been an abstainer, but explaining “it’s no use locking the door after the steed is stolen” (36). Montgomery is not physically described in animalized terms like Hyde, but he is more akin to Jekyll, who releases the animal within him through the use of drugs. Montgomery’s drunken, aberrant behavior stigmatizes his dependence on alcohol through the purview of Prendick’s explicitly animalized associations.
Ironically, though Prendick uses his identity as an abstainer to situate himself at the apex of his hierarchy of humanity, he still acknowledges drinking alcohol to be a fundamentally human experience. Purposely fermenting and drinking liquor is a humanizing technic, which is expressed by Prendrick when he yells, “don’t give the drink to that beast” at Montgomery. Montgomery clearly views drinking alcohol as humanizing technic and social bonding agent, citing the social, and religious, pertinence of consuming alcohol: Montgomery yells at him, “You’re the beast. He takes his liquor like a Christian” (107). It is clear that Prendick’s fear and confounded sense of the differentiation between the human and the animal prevents him from partaking in socialization that would characteristically humanize him. Prendick notices Montgomery’s “certain satisfaction in giving him brandy,” but fails to notice that this satisfaction comes from imbibing humanizing technic while being surrounded by beasts. Thus, Prendick’s perception represents the rupture of the human/animal binary and the impossibility of upholding Enlightenment humanism at the end of the nineteenth century.
The indeterminacy surrounding drug users, drug use, and drugs, as emergent biotechnology, exposes a significant and threatening fracture in the human/animal binary that upholds fin de siècle humanist notions of subjectivity. The peculiar position of drugs as an aspect of scientific discourse that simultaneously humanizes and animalizes marks one point of departure toward the paradigmatic shift in thinking about the subject that occurs throughout the twentieth century. The synthesis of contemporary work in HAS and science studies, I hope, not only demonstrates the interpretative richness of interdisciplinary approaches to literature but also shows their importance to comprehending our own historical moment. Late Victorian Gothic fiction, of which Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Island of Dr. Moreau are exemplary, magnifies the beginnings of Western cultural anxieties surrounding drugs, drug users, and drug use. Their representation in these novels displays how the tendency to animalize the drug user arises from an increasingly vulnerable and problematic definition of humanity. Furthermore, these ideological assumptions present in Victorian discourse of subjectivity do not simply dissipate with time but cast a shadow on the twentieth century and on into the twenty-first, providing the ideological structure for draconian drug policies and their subsequent human rights abuses. Perhaps only through interdisciplinary critical engagement with the past can we approach the possibility of a compassionate discourse surrounding drugs, drug use, and the drug user.
Calarco, Matthew. Zoographies: The Question of the Animal from Heidegger to Derrida. Cambridge UP, 2008.
Derrida, Jacques. The Animal That Therefore I Am. Edited by Marie-Louise Mallet and translatedby David Wills, Fordham UP, 2008.
—. “Plato’s Pharmacy.” Dissemination. Translated by Barbara Johnson, Athlone Press, 1981, pp. 61-172.
Harrison, Debbie. “Doctors, Drugs, and Addiction: Professional Integrity in Peril at the Fin De Siècle.” Gothic Studies, vol. 12, no. 2, 2009, pp. 52-62.
Mann, R. D. Modern Drug Use: An Enquiry on Historical Principles. Springer Netherlands,1984.
Ortiz-Robles, Mario. “Liminanimal: The Monster in Late Victorian Gothic Fiction.” European Journal of English Studies, vol. 19, no. 1, 2015, pp. 10-23.
Rohman, Carrie. “Burning Out the Animal: The Failure of Enlightenment Purification in H. G.Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau.” Figuring Animals: Essays on Animal Images in Art, Literature, Philosophy, and Popular Culture, edited by Mary Sanders Pollock and Catherine Rainwater, Palgrave McMillan, 2005, pp. 121-34.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Edited by Martin A. Danahy, Broadview Editions, 2005.
Stiles, Anne. Popular Fiction and Brain Science in the Late Nineteenth Century. Cambridge UP, 2012.
Wells, H. G. The Island of Dr. Moreau. Edited by Patrick Parrinder, Penguin Books, 2005.
Zieger, Susan. Inventing the Addict: Drugs, Race, and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century British and American Literature. U of Massachusetts P, 2008.
- They, their, and them will be used as singular, gender neutral pronouns in this essay. ↵