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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Queer magic : hypnotic influence and alchemical reproduction in W. Somerset Maugham’s The Magician Tomko, Taylor


While the scandal surrounding Oscar Wilde’s incarceration continued to hover at the edges of late Victorian consciousness, a smaller press war erupted: occultist Aleister Crowley published a defamatory article accusing William Somerset Maugham of plagiarizing Crowley’s persona for the antagonist of his new novel, The Magician (1908). Crowley’s supposed doppelgänger, Oliver Haddo, mimics Crowley’s esoteric practices by mesmerizing and marrying Margaret Dauncey, the intended wife of Doctor Arthur Burdon, for the purpose of using her virginal blood for alchemically generated life. This thesis analyses the connections between the occultism depicted in The Magician and Wildean Decadence, to suggest that Maugham uses esotericism to depict transgressive sexual subjectivities in the wake of Oscar Wilde’s trial for gross indecency (1895). This analysis takes place through a combination of historical works concerning Decadence, occultism, and the fin-de-siècle gothic; theoretical ideas surrounding sexual identity formation; and close reading of The Magician and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. The first chapter of this thesis considers the rhetoric of influence surrounding Wilde’s trial alongside the controversial use of medical hypnosis from the 1850s-1880s. By discussing these two topics in tandem, this chapter demonstrates the importance of homosociality and homosexuality in Wilde’s trial, Dorian’s identity formation in Dorian Gray, and Margaret’s mesmerism in The Magician. This discussion solidifies the relationship between queer influence and mesmerism, demonstrating that Maugham uses hypnotism to hearken to the danger of homosocial influence for hetereonormative sexual subjectivity. The second chapter considers Haddo’s alchemical attempts to create life as a metaphor for male-centred reproduction. By comparing Haddo’s relationship with his alchemical project to the tenets of aestheticism Wilde offers in the “Preface” to Dorian Gray, this chapter situates Haddo’s alchemical work as an artistic project, before reading his artistic creation of the alchemically-generated homunculi as symbolic of queer reproductive capacity. In the conclusion, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre are considered as literary antecedents for Maugham’s novel, and the end of The Magician, wherein Haddo and the site of his experiments are destroyed, is read as an attempt on Maugham’s part to cleanse himself of queer subjectivity.

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