UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Disintegrated subjects : Gothic fiction, mental science and the fin-de-siècle discourse of dissociation Rebry, Natasha L.


The end of the nineteenth century witnessed a rise in popularity of Gothic fiction, which included the publication of works such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), George Du Maurier’s Trilby (1894), Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan (1894) and The Three Impostors (1895), and Richard Marsh’s The Beetle (1897), featuring menacing foreign mesmerists, hypnotising villains, somnambulistic criminals and spectacular dissociations of personality. Such figures and tropes were not merely the stuff of Gothic fiction, however; from 1875 to the close of the century, cases of dual or multiple personality were reported with increasing frequency, and dissociation – a splitting off of certain mental processes from conscious awareness – was a topic widely discussed in Victorian medical, scientific, social, legal and literary circles. Cases of dissociation and studies of dissociogenic practices like mesmerism and hypnotism compelled attention as they seemed to indicate the fragmented, porous and malleable nature of the human mind and will, challenging longstanding beliefs in a unified soul or mind governing human action. Figured as plebeian, feminine, degenerative and “primitive” in a number of discourses related to mental science, dissociative phenomena offered a number of rich metaphoric possibilities for writers of Gothic fiction. This dissertation connects the rise of interest in dissociation with the rise of Gothic fiction in the fin-de-siècle, arguing that late-nineteenth-century Gothic fiction not only incorporated and responded to the theories of Victorian mental scientists on dissociation but also intelligently grappled with and actively challenged the often hegemonic and regulatory nature of such theories by demonstrating the close proximities between normal and so-called deviant psychologies. Fin-de-siècle Gothic fiction posed a fundamental challenge to predominant views on the dissociative subject by demonstrating that Englishmen were not exempt from the experience of multiplicity and psychic fragmentation, hence not as different from women, “degenerates” and “primitives” as they believed. Furthermore, Gothic texts at times even influenced the theories of mental science, providing mental scientists with a language for the expression of the distressing nature of mental disunity, thus demonstrating the circuitous nature of the relationship between mental science and Gothic fiction.

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