Victorian Ghosts, 1852-1907: EN 4573 Collection

Exploration of Supernatural Through the Human Mind by Sabrina Camarda

            There is a common thread of Gothic tendencies to be found in Victorian ghost stories. One of these tendencies that can be easily seen is the exploration of the human mind and it's capacities. Victorian ghost stories adopted this notion into their own genre by relating it to the world of the supernatural. The real world and imagined world are blurred by these Victorian ghost stories. The question of sanity coming up in their characters begs the question “are these ghost’s real or not?”. By using characters to delve into the supernatural and its effects on the human mind, these authors have created a stereotype that can be seen today. The idea of mental health and ghostly apparitions is one that is still considered presently.

            Through the character Grieve’s behavioural madness in Tom Hood’s “Shadow of a Shade”, the protagonist’s ‘delusions’ in M.E. Braddon’s “The Cold Embrace” and the death of Ralph in Rhoda Broughton’s “The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth”. These stories look into the human mind and it's limitations to the supernatural world. Victorian ghost stories explore the human mind and through its capacity to understand the supernatural world.

            Women are prominently emotional figures in Victorian ghost stories. Women during this time period are often characterized as fragile and vulnerable. They are protected from anything that could drive them to “madness”. However, in two out of three of the ghost stories above, the women are directly related to the supernatural events in the plot. In Braddon’s “The Cold Embrace”, the deceased beloved of the protagonist comes back to haunt him like she promised earlier in the story. This causes the protagonist to descend into “madness” and become a “shadow of his former self” (4). While he was once portrayed as a strong male, “young, ambitious, clever…sorrow and death could have no part in his destiny” (3), he is none of those stable notions because of the ghost of his former love embracing him with a touch that feels real.

            The woman’s touch has now created a feminized version of the protagonist. In an article written by Joelle Masters, she argues that there is a typical characterization of a “male narrators whose “rationalism, skepticism, and cultural authority” (223). The protagonist strays away from this characterization due to the haunting he is succumbing to, making him more “female” in the narration. Someone who is truly vulnerable to changes in mental health. The exploration of this ability to change mentally due to an encounter with the supernatural world is not isolated to just this story.

            Woman in Victorian ghost stories more easily succumb to ‘lunacy’. While more ghost stories do delve into this notion, Rhoda Broughton does not. She creates characters of both genders that are touched by supernatural and affected mentally afterwards. Cecilia’s servant after encountering a ghost apparition was “removed to a lunatic asylum” (6). While the servant was a female who could be perceived to be more vulnerable to these mentally altering events, the character Ralph was also vulnerable. After his encounter with the supernatural, he is “dead. Not in a swoon or in a fit, but dead” (8). Both genders in this story were easily swayed by the supernatural world to bring on a change in their mental states.

            Broughton used both genders in her story to be equally susceptible to the supernatural due to vulnerabilities of the mind. Master’s article writes that there are “questions about lunacy and rational behaviour from the perspective of a woman” (232) where it is not in question to just women alone. Women in Victorian ghost stories are mostly written by male authors, but the female writer is there, in this story. Questioning the limitations, the mind has for both genders in regard to supernatural exposure. In the exploration of the human mind’s ability to process the supernatural world, Broughton has proved it to be inclusive of both genders in mental alteration after encounters with the supernatural. Highlighting the limitations of the mind to be a human limitation and not a gendered one.

            The ability for the human mind to comprehend the supernatural is emphasized through each character’s behaviour. In Tom Hood’s story, the character Grieve is subject to a change in his mental state after committing the murder of his colleague, Mason, due to his love for Mason’s fiancĂ©e Lettie. Grieve starts to act differently after visiting Lettie, he was described as being “greatly altered” (8) and “looked as if he heard someone behind him” (9). Grieve’s guilt propelled him into ‘insanity’ because there was always a hint that Mason was in his shadow. This is especially noticeable when Grieve “pointed at something behind me…[and] he seized with an epileptic fit” (9). After the guilt of lying about Mason’s death, Grieve is all of a sudden seized by a fit. Highlighting that there is a limitation in the human’s mind to encounters with the supernatural world. The limitation of Grieve’s mind due to his guilt caused him to behave differently because of the haunting he was experiencing.

            Grieve was not the only one that had questions of ‘lunacy’ in this story. At some point, almost all of the character questioned what they were seeing. The brother of Lettie continued to question whether the painting of Mason was changing. He says, “it was no delusion…no trick of fancy” (5) when looking at the changes of the painting but also had his friend “laugh at [him] for being so superstitious” (7). The narrator is also succumbing to the human mind’s limitations when exposed to the supernatural world.

            The question of sanity is not exclusive to the males in this story either. Lettie has moments of mental instability but due to her emotions. When she finds out her fiancĂ© has died, she is “on her knees by the bed, insensible” (8). While she was not made vulnerable from supernatural experiences she was still subject to a question in her sanity. David Shariatmadari writes in a newspaper article that “explaining madness, showing how the fragmentation of the person was an intelligible response to an intolerable pressure” (2). This further emphasizes that the exploration of the human minds limits does include the idea of pressure and emotions pushing someone to their limit of sanity.

            Lettie is also directly affected by Grieve’s mental instability when he finally admits to his murder. He says, “sudden temptation of the devil made me strike the blow” (12) which only adds to the idea that his human mind is at its limit. This is highlighted after Grieve confesses he has “risen in his delirious terror…[and] two days later his body was found in the river” (12). This hints to either a suicide or Grieve dying from not being able to separate reality from imagination. Either way, both endings really show how the supernatural affects the human mind’s ability to understand the world around them.

            When looking at the human mind in relation to the supernatural the question of sanity always rises. Shariatmadari emphasizes it best in his article when he writes that while visiting an asylum “there was an air of the supernatural about it…patients [seemed] possessed or even ghosts themselves” (1). Braddon’s story explores this the best when the main character who was portrayed as strong and stable transforms into one that is fragile and vulnerable to the supernatural world. When he descends into his “madness” he becomes a ghost of himself. He believes “he will go mad” (4) due to the embrace he believes he feels from his recently passed lover. He loses all sense of time and tries to stay awake, exposing the state of the mind and its limitations. His deceased lovers embrace is “palpable to the touch—it cannot be real for it is impalpable to the sight” (3). It is easy to see the limitations of this protagonist’s mind in trying to comprehend the supernatural.

            This protagonists’ behavioural changes due to the supernatural exposure show the question of sanity to be valid. The real becomes entangled with the imaginable in his eyes. He does not take care of himself, “him who has not moistened his lips since yesterday” (4) or does not realize time is passing “they are gone...he is alone…they whirl him around…there is nothing but himself” (4). This back and forth of mental clarity back into delusion shows how far his mind has delved into “madness” due to this ghostly embrace. Scott Brewster’s article on gothic conventions in Victorian ghost stories has lead to this idea that “Gothic too progressively internalizes madness… it has assembled a cast of aberrant individuals who may be classed to some degree as mad” (1). Brewster wants to emphasize that while it is the conventions of these ghost stories to include a character that is influenced by “madness” it does change how we read the story. This is vividly seen in the Cold Embrace and The Shadow of a Shade where the supernatural is a catalyst for the change from normal behaviour into one that is abnormal.

            The reader in Victorian ghost stories that explore the human mind play a very active role in the stories. In all of these stories, the reader must become their own critique to pick apart what is real and what is imagination/supernatural. This leads back to the question of sanity and how it is defined. If the reader is now forced to decide if the supernatural is real or not real, it reveals the limits of their own mind in relation to the supernatural. Thus, making them equal to the protagonist’s mental state at the hands of the supernatural in each story. The limitations of the human psyche is revealed by how each character understands the supernatural and that affects how the reader perceives the supernatural through their narration.

            The question of sanity is not as clear as these stories make it out to be. Ira Wile writes an article about the question of normal and abnormal. They write that “Normality and abnormality are based upon prevailing concepts concerning physical, intellectual, ethical and moral elements with judgments concerning their social, asocial or anti-social implications” (1). The idea of normal is forever changing and is not a concrete definition. For each of these characters, there is a different set of criteria to decide if they are sane or not. For the Cold Embrace, it is the lack of the protagonist understanding his place in the world after the ghostly embrace. He is disoriented and ultimately died from not being able to take care of himself, “the body of a student who has died from want of food, exhaustion, and the breaking of a blood vessel” (4). Once again, the reader now has to delve into “madness” to figure out what that breaking of a blood vessel means and whether it was that or the malnutrition that made him die. This idea is also highlighted in Scott Brewster’s article where he writes that “literary madness is an aberration to be exposed or tamed, either by interpretive authority or the artist’s conscious control” (1). Once again, the reader has to play an active role in understanding the “madness” to “tame” the story enough to find truth.

            The idea of the supernatural is always tied to a character that is “mad” and it is up to the reader to decipher the truth of the story. Brewster writes that “ghosts and monsters are now treated as effects of mental aberration, delusion and delirium” (3). In Broughton’s story it is only those that directly encounter the supernatural who that “send a perfectly sane person in one instant raving mad” (6) or leading to death (8). This is further confused for the reader when the ending writes that “this is a true story” (8). The reader now has to actively decide if the two characters were just mad or if the supernatural was used to explore the human mind’s limitations. Are the characters just abnormal?  Wile writes that “The abnormal is not the monstrous” (12). This brings the reader to question what the definition of abnormal and normal? Well, Wile further complicated this idea in their paper. They write that “normality and abnormality are based upon prevailing concepts concerning physical, intellectual, ethical and moral elements with judgments concerning their social, asocial or anti-social implications” (1) but then goes on to write that “knowing the tendency to project the normal against the background of the abnormal, we should admit that we lack a sufficiently definite background of abnormality to enable us to define normality in terms of the abnormal” (12).

            Given Wile’s critiques on the definition of normality in the human mind, the reader in trying to find truth in the story is using their own metric of “madness” to decipher the levels of “madness” in the characters of the story. In “The Shadow of a Shade”, the reader must decide if Grieve committed suicide or died from his madness. The transition from sanity to insanity for Greive is noticeable when after his fit he looks “reassured when I said he had not [spoken of anything outrageous]” (10). He has now come back from “madness” into a brief moment of clarity where the reader is being hinted to look more deeply into Grieve’s mental state. Brewster mentions this in his article when he writes, “Gothic too progressively internalizes madness…it has assembled a cast of aberrant individuals who may be classed to some degree as mad: paranoiacs, schizophrenics, manic obsessives, exorbitant tyrants, overreaching scientists, and serial killers” (1). This idea only adds that the reader must actively read the story because of the internalized madness in the story and the exploration of a human mind’s limits.  Grieve becoming “insensible and delirious” (11) after confessing his love for Lettie is a big hint for the limits of his mental capacity due to his emotions. His guilt for killing her lover may be too much for him to handle which drives him to his delirious state but it is up to the reader to choose.

            The idea of madness in Victorian ghost stories requires the reader to be an active participant in questioning the human’s capacity to understand the supernatural world. From the character of Grieve and the protagonist in the Cold Embrace, the reader must look at the evidence given in the stories and contrast it with the idea of “madness” to find the truth in the story. Or even the servant and Ralph in Broughton’s story who equally succumb to the mind’s limits when encountering the supernatural. These authors all use the human mind to explore its ability to understand the supernatural ultimately leading to it “breaking”. Wile writes that “our desire for a hard and fast line leads us to build objective standards into which so much of the subjective enters that difficult problems arise in the use of various tables and scales” (4). It is up to the reader to figure out what they consider to be the limitations of the human mind in each story and whether each character fits into the standard of “madness” or whether it truly was the supernatural at play. The reader decides whether the authors truly explored the human mind or if it really was the supernatural that lead to the psyche being pushed to its limit.

This work by Sabrina Camarda is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0

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