A Monster of Science: A look at Gothic Tropes in The Bacillus and Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde

The gothic is notorious for exciting the fascination with all things darker and uncanny within its audience. Its strong association with horrors plays with and reveals curiosities previously unexplored. The gothic trope falls extensively on various forms of literature, evolving, growing, and interchanging with each year and new trend. However, classic gothic tropes, including the gothic monster have been consistent over time, being the cause of both terror and intrigue from its audiences. It can be argued that the rise of science also meant the rise of the gothic, as it plays a vital part in creating these monsters. Along with the scientific revolution, the idea of science gone wrong contributed to a sense of unease and wariness in certain sciences during the height of the gothic era. Two texts utilising the gothic tropes of strange science, and the monster, which shall be compared are Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and H. G. Wells’ The Stolen Bacillus. These classic gothic tales will be contrasted to see how they make use of the gothic tropes.

Science and the gothic work seamlessly together in creating new and unfamiliar stories that, although implausible, have an air of possibility to them. Both Wells and Stevenson deal with “the struggle for existence” (Darwin 521) within their texts, however, take on this philosophical question differently. Science plays quite a significant role in Wells’ The Stolen Bacillus, quite literally revolving around the potentially detrimental release of a living disease bacteria. As we have witnessed from national and international outbreaks, including the Spanish flu, Bubonic plague, and more recently, COVID-19, a harmful disease unleashed upon the world can have devastating effects. Costa and Baños point out that the use of a scientific disease is a significant gothic trope in Wells’ work, especially at the time of publication, as “Wells’ education coincided with the advent of medical microbiology, when micro-organisms were first clearly identified as the cause of the most prevalent diseases in his time” (8). The struggle for existence, in this case, is the need to prevent this potentially deadly disease from being unleashed. Arguably there is another kind of struggle for existence found within the anarchist. He uses the bacteria in a way to give existence to anarchy and infamy, “I shall be a martyr” (Wells 411), “The sense of imminent death gave him a certain dignity” (Wells 412). These examples show the anarchist’s desire for science to bring about his political agenda, rather than that of political campaigning.

In Stevenson’s work, Hyde struggles to break free and exist after Jekyll’s decision to no longer let him out. Jekyll’s character says that Hyde “lay caged in his flesh, where he [Jekyll] heard it mutter and felt it struggle to be born” (Stevenson 61). Jekyll and Hyde incorporate scientific aspects of evolutionary theory, the ape-like man Hyde resembling the wilder, more primitive side of the human evolutionary chain. Margaret Weegman has a different view, instead of seeing the case of Jekyll and Hyde to be “a warning about decadence, of which unbridled drug use was a sign or cause” (128). Jekyll uses an experimental concoction that brings forth Mr Hyde from within, whether it accounts for a breakthrough in science, or the overwhelming effects of narcotics is arguable. However, this theory gives a more horrifying realism to the story. If chemicals like alcohol, laudanum, and even codeine can alter a person’s mental state and abilities, then it could also uncover hidden personas, or reduce one to a more primitive state. Though, more terrifying is the concept of evolutionary regression. Dickens remarks that “Dr Maudsley, after detailing various strange animal-like traits in idiots, asks whether these are not due to the reappearance of primitive instincts” (523). What constitutes an “idiot” is unclear, but during a time of scientific evolution, the possibility of mental and physical regression is rather scary. This sense of an “other”, primitive self creates a concern that readers too have this within them, that a Hyde-like character could one day emerge and do away with all previous and personal advancement.

The success of science inherently results in the appearance of unsavoury characters, making way for the narratives’ monsters. The monster found in The Stolen Bacillus is the bacteria itself. Though insentient, the bottled cholera is still a source of fear. The bacteriologist even describes the micro-organism as being anthropomorphic, “death full of pain and indignity – would be released upon this city, and go hither and thither seeking its victims. Here he would take the husband from the wife… he would follow the water-mains, creeping along streets, picking out and punishing a house here and a house there” (Wells 409). The bacteriologist calls the disease a “he”, positioning the reader to think of it as a living, conscious, intelligent thing; the reader trusts the bacteriologist because of his speciality. In Julia Kristeva’s The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, she claims that there is a different kind of horror between the “imaginary uncanniness and real threat” (557), that it is “not the lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order” (557). Arguably, the anarchist character is the monster in this narrative, with Costa and Baños stating that Wells being interested in Socialist politics, would have dissociated with anarchists (4), though they shared some principles. However, the audience is not afraid of the anarchist, but of what he plans to do with the vial of living cholera. A deadly disease unleashed upon society is considered a realistic threat, more real and terrifying than the imaginary vampire or goblin, making it a different kind of gothic monster to that of the traditional sort.

 The gothic monster within Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is one of a more traditional sense. Hyde is the “evil side of [Jekyll’s] nature” (Stevenson 51), everything from his physical appearance to his behaviour and handwriting is altered from the original person. Not only is Hyde unpleasant to look at by those around him, but he also has a strength and anger that no ordinary man would possess. Karl Miller describes doubles as a trope where “one self does what the other self can’t. One self is meek while the other is fierce” (126). This is apparent in Jekyll and Hyde’s case as Hyde commits crimes that Jekyll is not willing or able to. But the mystery of the monster is one unsolved up until the ending, creating tension and suspense within the audience as there is no knowing when the Hyde character will emerge next, nor what he’ll do. Judith Halberstam notes that “most gothic novels lack the point of view of the monster” (131), which is partially true in Hyde’s case. While the reader is never exposed to Hyde’s point of view directly, they are given the impressions and memories of being within Hyde from Jekyll. However, this only adds to the sense of Hyde’s monstrousness as Jekyll begins to fear when Hyde will take control, that he is a prisoner of his own body, or that he may lose himself entirely. This gothic monster works as both a physical murderer and a psychological assailant in the eyes of its readers.

Gothic tropes are difficult to strictly categorise as there are numerous interpretations of the same trope, alternative fears surrounding a particular trope or relating to that trope. While both narratives share scientific aspects, they utilise different scientific fields, one being bacteriology, and the other being alchemy. In The Stolen Bacillus, it is predominantly the idea of the monstrous bacteria that is most frightening, rather than its actual release as the result turns out harmless. In Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, we instead see a physical representation of the egregious Hyde and his eventual overcoming of the weaker Dr Jekyll. For this reason, it is useless to try and analyse the specificities of Gothic tropes within literature, but rather to examine the diverse ways fiction uses these gothic tropes to work in creating a memorable and unique narrative.

By Emily Morrison
Assoc Prof Jessica Gildersleeve
ENL2004: Gothic Stories
31 August 2020

Works Cited

Costa, Helena, and Josep-E Baños. “Bioterrorism in the Literature of the Nineteenth Century: The Case of Wells and The Stolen Bacillus.” Cogent Arts & Humanities, vol. 3, no. 1, 12 Sept. 2016, 10.1080/23311983.2016.1224538. Accessed 20 Aug. 2020.

Darwin, Charles. “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872).” Gothic Evolutions : Poetry, Tales, Context, Theory. Peterborough, Ontario, Broadview Press, 2014. Pp. 522-52526.

Darwin, Charles. “The Origins of Species (1859).” Gothic Evolutions : Poetry, Tales, Context, Theory. Peterborough, Ontario, Broadview Press, 2014. Pp. 521-522.

Halberstam, Judith. “An Introduction to Gothic Monstrosity.” Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde : An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Contexts, Performance Adaptations, Criticism. edited by Katherine Linehan, 1st ed., New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 2003. Pp. 128-131.

Kristeva, Julia. “The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (1982).” Gothic Evolutions : Poetry, Tales, Context, Theory. Peterborough, Ontario, Broadview Press, 2014. Pp. 556-558.

Miller, Karl. “The Modern Double.” Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde : An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Contexts, Performance Adaptations, Criticism. edited by Katherine Linehan, 1st ed., New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 2003. Pp. 124-126.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde : An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Contexts, Performance Adaptations, Criticism. edited by Katherine Linehan, 1st ed., New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 2003.

Weegmann, Martin. The World within the Group : Developing Theory for Group Analysis. London, Karnac, 19 May 2014, ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.usq.edu.au/lib/usq/detail.action?docID=1684467. Accessed 20 Aug. 2020.

Wells, H. G. “The Stolen Bacillus.” Gothic Evolutions : Poetry, Tales, Context, Theory. Peterborough, Ontario, Broadview Press, 2014. Pp. 408-412.


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