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Scientific Thinking Contrast Superstitions Victorian English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1949 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The Victorian age ranging from 1886 perhaps was one of the most productive in time. The invention of the steam engine as well as the sudden accelerated development of science served to be the catalyst of change in Victorian lives as well as their way of thought. As their lives became more dependent on the “rationalness” of science and its “concrete principals”, a surrealistic attitude started to emerge in society; as it had started to become apparent that ‘religion was being replaced by science’. The Victorian society seemed afraid, almost paranoid about the dangers of the recent inventions. Exploiting this fear and the radical change served to be a crucial contributing factor for authors if they were to make their work a success.

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There are three similar Victorian stories written by noted authors at the time that I will analyse to show the superstitious interpretations of each of the happenings, as well as its contrast with rational scientific thinking. Each of the three stories have rational as well as superstitious characters that have individual interpretations as to what is actually going on. Briefly, “The Signalman” by Charles Dickens was based around a “train station”; the element of fear caused by a “spectre”; and the reactions of 2 people to that “super natural” phenomena. “The Red Room” written by H.G. Wells 28 years after Dickens’ masterpiece was published; was based around a mysterious room in a castle which was said to be “haunted” by its two inhabitants. “The Monkeys Paw” our last short story written by W.W. Jacobs in 1902, was based around a supernatural object given to a family by a superstitious colonel which had “magic[al]” powers.

“Rational” by definition is something that is logical. This is the precise reason why the rationality of a given phenomenon can sometimes appear to be controversial as every individual has a difference in opinion.

Historians claim that the Victorians were already superstitious prior to the industrial revolution. That in particular sparked their imaginations when new “machines” started to roam the lands. An example of one of the famous “Superstitions” at the time was that:

“You should always cover your mouth while yawning so your spirit doesn’t leave you and the devil never enters your body.”

The rational scientific interpretation of this could be that this could just have been said so it improves the manners of little children. A “superstitious” interpretation would be the literal meaning that if you yawn your spirit could leave you and the devil could enter your body.

The setting of each of the gothic stories we are discussing is distinctly unique. The setting of “The Signalman” is described to be ghostly and haunting, much like the opening chapter of his previous popular novel Great Expectations (1860-1861). Charles Dickens describes it using words like “gloomier”; symbolism like the “red light” which implies danger as well as stereotypical phrases such as, “dark tunnel” and “One moonlight night”. These set the perfect atmosphere for the characters to be manipulated into the climax as well as highlighting their fears. The Signalman feared the “spectre” which is why Dickens had described the perfect setting of a “moonlight night” and a “dark tunnel” into what the “spectre” could disappear. This setting itself seems superstitious, almost mythical since it is described to be so un-natural. The Red Room uses the stereotypical haunted “castle” as a setting. Though this seems un-original, it proves to be highly effective as it fits its purpose of luring the audience to believe the setting is old and haunted. The room is described to be a “large shadowy room” lit by “candles”. This establishes the perfect silent yet unkindly atmosphere where the narrator would face “fear”. It is for those reasons this much like “The Signalman”, has a superstitious setting. Unlike the other two stories, the setting of “The Monkey’s Paw” does not appear to have a negative appeal. It’s mainly based around the “Laburnam Villa” in which a happy family live. The writer portrays a cosy and safe environment by mentioning how a “fire burned brightly” and a son and father play “chess”. The setting of this story seems rational and so very believable.

The authors wrote the stories since there was a big target audience at the time as its controversial themes appealed to most.The element of death is a common theme in the three stories. In The Signalman, the ending of the story resulted in the Signalman’s tragic death. (“Signal-man killed this morning sir.”)The story was left at a cliff hanger since the source of the signalman’s paranoia about the spectre was left undefined. The narrator in The Signal Man represented symbolically the rational audience whereas the Signalman himself represented the superstitious Victorian. Throughout each visit, the Signalman is briefing the narrator on his superstitious interpretations on his encounters with the “spectre”. The narrator himself always seems to offer logical explanations for the events described, such that it was “a] remarkable coincidence” that a woman had died after the Signalman saw the spectre. Another rational scientific explanation offered by the narrator was that the Signalman wasn’t mentally at peace, which was of course dismissed when he saw something in the tunnel himself.

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In the ‘Red Room’, although death hadn’t directly intervened it was fear; fear which ultimately suggests death. (” It is your own choosing” – fear is implied) There were three main characters in the story which show a clear contrast in the society as to whether they believe in superstitious sayings. The two inhabitants consisting of the “old woman” and “the old man” were clearly superstitious. They were implying a supernatural existence in the room by saying things like “it is your own choosing” and assuring him of their extensive experience of the castle (“Eight-and-twenty years”), suggesting once again that their predictions were right. They seemed under the impression that the supernatural existence was in the form of an “old earl” or “poor young countess who was frightened”. The narrator at the end dismissed these claims once he had returned from the room explaining how it was something beyond what they had imagined. “fear”. “Fear that will not have light nor sound, that will not bear with reason, that deafens and darkens and overwhelms”. If read between the lines, this quote suggests that it was a psychological affect that was daunting the residents. This shows the rational side of the explanation as well as a clear contrast as to the superstitions of the “old man” and “old woman”.

The popular Victorian theme of death is also quite transparent in The Monkey’s Paw (“Badly hurt…but he is not in any pain.”). Herbert’s father, a rational character seemed at first critical of the magical object (“Monkey’s Paw”) when it was given to him by the colonel. His wife, “Mrs White” shared this rational opinion, as she thought it “Sounds like the Arabian Nights,” (The Arabian Nights are a set of mythical stories within stories devised by Arabs long before the Victorians. Their main purpose was to entertain children). ‘Coincidently’ later on in the story, Mr White’s son died in an industrial accident leaving him with the sum he had wished for from the ‘The Monkey’s Paw’. The author at this point had introduced the perfect climax with the help of the generic public fear at the time of the industrialisation. Mrs White seemed to have lost her sense as she was in inconsolable misery after her son’s tragic death. This extreme circumstance provided the perfect medium for the author to change the foundations of the character. She forced her husband to wish her son to return from the dead. (‘”No,” she cried triumphantly; “We’ll have one more. Go down and get it quickly, and wish our boy alive again.”). This quote in contrast with the previous confirms that she has gone from being a rational to a superstitious character. “His wife sat up in bed listening. A loud knock resounded through the house.” At this point there is a clear contrast of alternative interpretations of what had happened. The rational scientific interpretation could be that there was someone else besides her son was knocking, but unlike Charles Dickens’ story, W.W. Jacobs is actually forcing the superstitious interpretation to the audience that her son had returned since ” at the same moment [after the wish of him returning had been declared] a knock, so quiet and stealthy as to be scarcely audible, sounded on the front door”.

The ending of the stories were quite unique. Charles Dickens’ masterpiece ended on a very low note as the Signalman was killed. A catastrophe was foreseen and had taken the shape of the death poor devoted employee. The fact that it was foreseen and unexplained leaves the readers in tremendous irony and so raises the question whether these events were caused by a rational phenomenon or whether there was supernatural forces acting. The Red Room unlike “The Signalman” ends on a high note. The narrator explains how there was no supernatural force, and that it was just your conscience that was acting. This dismisses the superstitious Victorian attitudes as it offers a rational or scientific explanation to the events that had occurred in “The Red Room”. “The Monkey’s Paw” like “The Signalman”, ended on a very low note. The couple’s son had been hacked by industrial machinery and had passed away. The Supernatural “magic [al]” powers of the monkey’s paw had been left unexplained by any logical or rational explanation or suggestion by the author. It ends sadly with Mr. White standing along with the “the street lamp … [on a]… deserted road” symbolising how lonely they had become and the ironic catastrophe that had stripped apart his family.

In conclusion I have come to an understanding that contrasting superstitious and rational phenomenon is crucial to include in a gothic story. This is a fact that is common in all three of the stories that are analysed and aimed at the Victorian audience. It has also come to my attention that the authors use the characters to represent different sides of the controversy of the rationality of various phenomena as well as an appropriately described setting provides for an effective build-up for the controversy itself. There is a mixture of rational and supernatural interpretations in all three of the stories in which the author is not telling the reader in which to believe which kicks in the irony. The fears and superstitions of the Victorian audience seem very farfetched when they are contrasted as displayed, with the rational and scientific explanation.


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