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Haiduc Alina

British Cultural Studies, 2nd Year


Kelly Hurley, The Gothic Body. Sexuality, Materialism and Degeneration at the Fin de
Siecle.
The Abhuman

The topic of Hurley’s book is concerned with the human subject and its identity,
violence, repulsiveness and ruination. These themes were exploited in British Gothic
Fiction at the end of the 19 th century and the beginning of the 20 th century. Kelly Hurley
stresses the idea of the body metamorphosis instead of a stable body and a fragmented
existence instead of a unitary exit and the idea of destruction. The abhuman subject is
not-quite-human subject,…, continually in danger of becoming not-itself, becoming
other.” The word “abhuman” signals a loss through the prefix “ab-“. This process is a
paralysis, a species of trauma. The abhuman appears in the moment in which the human
body collapses and it is reshaped into a slug-man, a snake woman, a beetle woman, a
dog-man, fungus person. The idea was that this major change in the reconstitution of the
human subject occurred in a violent manner.
At the fin-de-siecle a revival of the Gothic genre happened. In late-Victorian age
and in Edwardian culture the abhuman theory was rendered by evolutionism, criminal
anthropology , sexology, degeneration theory. There was much interest upon the horrific
re-making of the human body and its identity. The abhuman has a discontinuos identity
and a ambiguous body shape. The scientific studies caused a general malaise linked to
this new theory. In pre-Victorian Gothic the human identity and culture were explored as
well as the themes of insanity, criminality, barbarity and sexual perversion. The pre-
Freudian psychology described the human subject as being fractured by discontinuity and
alienation from its true self. Gothic fiction brought into discussion the sense of trauma to
vivid life.
Argument and method
In the Victorian age there existed an impulse to categorize and classify every
aspect scientifically. Among these aspects, the human identity was subjected to
classification. Regarding the self linked to sexual identity it resulted that any norm was
self-contradictory. This is how the third sex entered the discussion and the profile of the
homosexual was depicted. The conclusion was that there was a multiplicity of human
sexual practices and there was no change of categorization.

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Haiduc Alina
British Cultural Studies, 2nd Year
Fin-de-siecle Gothic is seen as an innovative genre. The argument to sustain this
claim is divided by Hurley into three parts. The first part is entitled The Gothic Material
World, the second part is concerned with Gothic Bodies and the third part is called Gothic
Sexuality.
Part I issues with a theory about abhuman-body in relation to materialist science
and philosophy of the late 19th century and the early 20th century. The main idea is that
matter is no longer subordinated to form, stability does no longer exist while changebility
occurs. Nothing is left but Things in the process of becoming Other. One of the
preoccupations of the fin-de-siecle Gothic is concerned with the tracing of Thing-Ness.
Part II deals with the issue of the Gothic making-abhuman out of the human body
within the evolutionist discourses: Darwinism, criminal anthropology and the
degeneration theory. According to Darwinism the species identity is characterized by
admixture and flux rather than integrity and fixity. The Gothic genre places the human
body between species, in an undergoing metamorphoses of human to not-human
configuration.
The degeneration theory speaks about the inheritance of unwanted family traits
and the disastrous effects. The result is a social contamination thus leading to a nation’s
chaos. The criminal anthtopology deals with the human liability to atavism which leads to
predilection of certain individuals for criminal behavior.
The last part of the argument deals with the Gothic’s participation in the ongoing
debates over the nature of human sexuality. In the late Victorian age there was an attempt
to classify gender roles but the result was a contradiction to reality. This is why Gothic
presented the typology of the aggressive feminity and homosexuality as monstruous and
abhorrent. Gothic ended by serving to the multiplication and destabilization of the
meanings of sexuality, including perversion. During the fin-de-siecle Gothic the binarism
of sexual difference was unfixed and it explored the parametres of abhuman as
posthuman identities.
Metaphysical Estrangement
To explain the metaphysical estrangement, Kelly Hurley chose to discuss a 1890
novel by Arthur Machen, The Great God Pan. The major interest is set upon Helen
Vaughan, a beautiful but infamous woman. Helen was the product of experimental

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Haiduc Alina
British Cultural Studies, 2nd Year
neurology and obscure primitive forces. The result is a criminal woman. Dr. Raymond
was a neurologist interested in transcendental medicine. He encounters a 17-year-old
virgin, Mary and alters her brain. His purpose was to reach that point in which Mary
would communicate with God Pan after the operation. His purpose was reached because
Mary, although she remained a total idiot after the intervention, sees God Pan. Nine
months later Mary gives birth to Helen and dies.
Helen proved to be a criminal. One of her victims was Rachel a pubescent girl but
afterwards her victims were only men. She didn’t kill them but they died of heart failure,
nervous prostration and suicide. A suicidal mania wa noticed among the aristocratic
bachelors of London during that period. All of them were seen coming out of Helen’s
room and soon afterwards they died. Their faces showed hate, despair, fury. Helen was
involved in orgiastic rites and primitive, perverse activities. Her metamorphoses can be
seen in the moment of her death. She melts down from woman to man, from man to
beast, from beast to worse than beast. She assumes various bodily identities.
The novel portraits sexuality as horrific, with multiple identities and it renders
permeable the boundary between science and supernatural. The human subject is
presented as liable to contamination, melting in dissolving, gradually losing sexual and
species traits. Helen melts down from matter to a substance like jelly and finally in an
extremely terrible thing. The events of the novel are not chronologically presented and
they are related from three points of view: that of Villiers, Clarke and Austin. The plot
reveals itself with the help of manuscripts, letters, medical reports and sketches made by
an artist, who was present during Helen’s orgies. The main theme is the becoming-
abhuman of the human subject and the human mutability in supernatural science.
The Fantastic
Here Hurley speaks about the denial of humans when facing the supernatural
forces. Jonathan Harker, from Dracula, after his horrific experience in Transylvania.
Jonathan wanders if he is mad or not after such an adventure.