19th Century Texts

19th Century Texts

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What features are disturbing or reassuring in your selection of 19th
century texts?

The nineteenth century produced many of the very best authors of all
time in all genres such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens and
H.G. Wells. Although they made fame in their originality, many factors
coincided in their writing and formed the base for characters and
storylines. It was these influences which in a way made their stories
and novels more interesting to delve into as they opposed disturbing
and reassuring features to create points of discussion.

During the 19th century, many controversial changes took place. In
terms of science, there was a significant rise in interest and
development especially after the outbreak of many diseases, none more
so than the deadly bacteria of cholera. Cholera was an infectious
epidemic and had many types though all of which were infectious and
many of which were most disturbingly fatal. Cholera caused slowing of
the blood circulation and was not caused by any form of consumption
but was essentially spread from immigrants who had caught the disease
in filthy, overcrowded ships. We see this particular aspect heavily
dominant in ‘The Stolen Bacillus’ by H.G. Wells overlapping with other
prevailing issues such as personality disorders and the inevitable
destabilisation of society through anarchism and the will to oppose
moral rights.

Other factors which affected the content of our other two chosen texts
- ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’ by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and
‘Hop frog’ by Edgar Allan Poe – were also very prominent in the 19th
century. Doyle’s short story was subjected to the simultaneous aspects
of the British Empire and India, the concern of power by reason of
gender, the sure decline of British aristocracy and once again the
topic of personality disorders inspiring murder. Poe’s story binds
personality disorders inspiring murder and power relationships.

All three of our studied texts provided many disturbing aspects from
start to finish and I felt that these overpowered the reassuring
facets in many patches of the three stories. We saw intensified
atmospheres simply through the settings and characters as the authors
manipulated these features to generate greater interest. For example,
‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’ is mainly set in Stoke Moran, a
‘200 year old house’, ‘grey, lichen-blotched stone, with a high
central and two curving wings, like the claws of a crab, thrown out on
each side. In one of these wings the windows were broken and blocked
with wooden boards while the roof was partly caved in, a picture of
ruin.’ This mansion I feel provides a very disturbing setting
especially one in which a murder has taken place as it provides no

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warmth in description. Boarded windows suggests that little care has
been taken to repairing this ancient in heritage which has been passed
down a line of declining aristocrats; one of the 19th century traits
mentioned earlier as an influential aspect of the era’s writing. This
setting typifies the gothic style and I feel Doyle has used this
extremely well to augment the unsettling feel to the story.

Similarly, ‘The Stolen Bacillus’ also provides an eerie setting in a
laboratory. The mere sense of a lack of security in letting an
anarchist so easily attain what could have been a deadly bacterium is
disturbing in itself whilst keeping such contents in test tubes all
along fashions curiosity into why he would contain a living bacterium
of such peril.

Aside from the settings, all three texts embrace many distressing
characters through both their appearances and actions. For instance,
in ‘Hop Frog’, we are almost caught between the king and Hop Frog as
we struggle to settle on who is in effect more disturbing. Our opinion
changes through the story as it unfolds but both are furnished with
characteristics to loath, yet strangely also to pity. Hop Frog is a
‘dwarf’, and his restricted movement was the mains behind the creation
of his name. Allowing yourself to be called this demonstrates a real
lack of self-esteem and compounds the clear importance of power in
this story as the king and his ministers repeatedly make jokes out of
him; unafraid of stepping over the line through his position. He
abuses this power as he provides pleasure for him and his ministers at
the expense of Hop Frog and those powerless to respond with
conviction. The king is described as ‘large, corpulent and oily’ which
gives the impression that he is more engulfed by practical jokes and
lazing around as opposed to throwing his weight about and being
useful. We can see this as disturbing as one can be permitted to abuse
his power so greatly upon a helpless cripple intentionally causing us
to feel sympathy for Hop Frog.

Hop Frog is put through many ordeals he is powerless to oppose but
clearly shows he is suffering in doing them such as being forced to
drink wine. I feel Poe binds his own distressing experiences into this
as he too struggled with alcohol throughout his life and so uses Hop
Frog to express himself. We see it as disturbing in the story and
would also see it disturbing in reality as one is overcome by alcohol.

However, Hop Frog demonstrates in more than one way how power can be
impressed upon one individual. Hop Frog is abused partly because he is
a dwarf and yet Trippetta is a more respected dwarf simply through her
looks. In contrast, we see a reassuring aspect as this relationship of
two outsiders’ fights for freedom and justice. Trippetta always
attempts to bail Hop Frog out of his tribulations with the King and
his ministers and this helps us to see that not all aspects of 19th
century writing are disturbing.

Our sympathy for Hop Frog however is swiftly put behind us as his
determination to seek for revenge takes over. This is alarming to us
not only because murder is never assuring but also because we begin to
think how much hatred has built up for a cripple to want to burn the
king to death. We begin to see the light as to how badly the king has
treated Hop Frog not only through what we are told earlier in the
story; which can only be a snapshot as it concerns just a small period
of time, but more so through his entire life under the kings
humiliation.

Moving on to the other two stories provides more disturbing and
reassuring characteristics which can be linked between both texts. We
can draw links between Holmes and the bacteriologist as well as Helen
Stoner and the anarchist and yet they are very different from one
another and very distinctive ways.

Helen Stoner and the anarchist are both very disturbing through the
impression we are given of them by their appearance. They are shown to
be very worn-down for very different reasons and so we can view the
links and contrasts very easily. Doyle describes Helen Stoner on her
meeting of Holmes as ‘a pitiable state of agitation, her face all
drawn and grey, with restless, frightened eyes, like those of some
hunted animal. Her features and figure were those of a woman of
thirty, but her hair was short with premature grey, and her expression
was weary and haggard.’ This demonstrates how she appears to be very
fatigued and distressed and her shaking emphasises her fear for
something. She adds to this feeling by wearing a very dull, lifeless
black, covering her face with a black veil to hide from as much as
possible. This is very disturbing for us to read as we feel her
vulnerability and seclusion from all around her and the feeling of a
complete lack of influence on society.

In contrast, Wells allows the anarchist to take a different approach
in resolving this lack of influence, equally disturbing for very
different reasons. The anarchist is described as ‘pale’ with ‘lank
black hair and deep grey eyes, the haggard expression and nervous
manner, the fitful yet keen interest’, as well as a desperate
sentiment of not being noticed. This also displays fatigue but in a
more threatening way. The deep grey eyes show evil intent more than
fear and his nervous manner is trepidation more than terror. We are
disturbed by this as it features a man willing to cause such harm to
innocent people for publicity as well as sacrificing his own life in
doing so; similar in a way to suicide bombers of the present day which
are far from assuring.

Holmes and the bacteriologist are the central characters of the two
stories and are both heavily linked to science. This is possibly
because both the authors themselves were linked to science and were
therefore able to apply their knowledge. H.G. Wells had won a
scholarship to study science at what is now Imperial College, London
whereas Doyle was a doctor prior to the Sherlock Holmes books. The 19th
century was a time when the popularity of science really began to rise
as the number of doctors, biologists, chemists and physicists grew.
The bacteriologist is more directly linked to science and the study of
diseases and their cures whereas Holmes and his sidekick Watson, a
doctor, are more distantly related as they only occasionally use it to
solve cases.

In general, we depict the bacteriologist as a more disturbing
character whilst we portray Holmes as a more reassuring character but
with reasoning, we can classify both characters in both categories.
The bacteriologist is unsettling in that he appears to reveal too much
to people who he barely knows and the mere fact that he allowed the
anarchist to potentially spread a disease like cholera would disturb
any reader. However, it is more reassuring that he is attempting to
find a cure for many diseases which would in turn save many lives
though this is probably overshadowed by his clumsy and absent-minded
character.

Holmes on the other hand is more reassuring as purely his profession
would suggest. Not only that, he does it free of charge suggesting
that it is as a course of justice rather than a job. However, the
manner in which he adjudicates a case can be seen as very disturbing
as the potential murderers, and only potential murderers, aren’t given
a fair trial to prove their innocence. As Britain today has a court
policy of innocent till proven guilty, and that any hint of innocence
hands the defendant the benefit of the doubt, we see Holmes acting as
judge, jury and executioner very unsettling.

We can also use the relationship of Holmes and Watson as well as the
relationship of the bacteriologist and his wife Minnie to seek out
disturbing and reassuring factors bound within both stories. Holmes
can request Watson into doing what he wants though it is not forced
upon Watson. This therefore is not similar to the relationship between
the king and Hop Frog in which Hop Frog doesn’t really get a say in
whether he wishes to do what he is ordered to do or not. For example,
Holmes did not force Watson to follow him to Miss Stoner’s room on the
night he caught Roylott but the king did force Hop Frog to drink the
wine. The relationship between Holmes and Watson is therefore more
reassuring as they are more friends more than anything which doesn’t
give Holmes more power over Watson. The relationship between the
bacteriologist and Minnie is strangely disturbing as they act absurdly
in relation to one another. For example, when the bacteriologist is
chasing the anarchist, rather than worrying about why he is doing so,
she is more concerned about him not having his hat, overcoat and shoes
on and is prepared to chase him in a cab to ensure he does so.

The other aspect of ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’ which can be
viewed as disturbing is the character Grimesby Roylott. He distresses
us most through his actions but Doyle adds to the effect by giving him
a horrid, despicable appearance. He is illustrated as having ‘a large
face, seared with a thousand wrinkles, burned yellow with the sun, and
marked with every evil passion’ as well as ‘deep-set, bile-shot eyes,
and his high, thin, fleshness nose, gave him somewhat the resemblance
to a fierce old bird of prey.’ This ghastly appearance is merged with
his past records to emphasise him as a disturbing character. His
relationship with everyone around him is unpleasant in that he is
dreaded and feared by all, even his own stepdaughter. He was also sent
to jail for murdering his old butler but more disturbingly was
released to murder again. We see the theme of personality disorders
displayed in this story as he kills through greed. He also allows
free-roaming and wild animals to run around his house such as baboons
and cheetahs which distresses us as these would be considered more
dangerous as opposed to friends to live with. He also uses a deadly
snake from India to commit his murders linking the story to the topic
of the British Empire and India. We feel unsettled by this as he has
gone to such extents to obtain the deadliest snake in the world.

Other than content however, we mustn’t overlook how the language and
structure of the stories adds to the dramatic tension of the story.
How an action or description of a character is written can greatly
affect the atmosphere emitted. For example, in ‘The Stolen Bacillus’
the actions of the anarchist can be made more disturbing by how he is
described in doing it. Instead of ‘looking at the little tube’, Wells
writes ‘devouring the little tube’ which makes it much more effective
in creating a disturbing character.

An example from ‘Hop Frog’ would be when he had just hauled the king
and his ministers high into the air hanging from the chandelier:
‘Leave them to me!’ now screamed Hop Frog, his shrill voice making
itself heard. One can imagine his shrill voice ring through the hall
of real cunningness and terror adding to the distressing touch of this
murder.

And finally, in ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’, we see the
common structure of all detective stories where we are given all the
subtle clues that Holmes gets and immediately we enter a game where we
almost are attempting to outsmart Holmes. We feel reassured at how
Holmes always appears to observantly pick out every clue we miss and
how the tension of wanting to know how the murder was committed is
always revealed at the very end.

I feel that concluding all the examples of disturbing and reassuring
features, there were more disturbing features in all but the 19th
century was a period of great change, which can always be unsettling,
and so it is of no surprise that this sentiment was carried on into
the writing of that era.
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