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Victorian Ghosts, 1852-1907: EN 4573 Collection

Isolation by Sarah Van Heuverswyn

           There is a kind of sadness in Victorian ghost stories. A sort of isolating feeling that some of us can understand makes us feel attached to the characters. There is a reason why songs about losing loved ones, society not understanding someone or ones about being afraid of change can make people cherish them. The reason is we relate to the story (songs are sort of stories) and the more we relate, the harder we hold onto it. There have been some Victorian stories that have stood the test of time and are still being told today. These ones are The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, The Cold Embrace by Mary Elizabeth Braddon and The Signalman​​​​​​​ by Charles Dickens. Each of the main characters feel isolated in their life, and is demonstrated through inner turmoil, how they interact with the world and can even be displayed through symbolism.

​​​​​​​           The Victorian era was a time of great change. Science was prevailing while there was more skepticism in religion, there were new technological innovations and inventions, and culture was changing. People were worried about the future, and didn’t know what to do about it. Because of this, ghost stories became prevalent to express their anxieties about their rapidly changing world. There is a quote from an article that said, “Enlightenment rationalism displaced religion as the authoritative mode of explaining the world and transformed conceptions of the relations between the individual and natural, supernatural, and social worlds,” (Travers, Sean. Pp.65). Some people were skeptical about the supernatural, and many stories had main characters as skeptics. Although, there were still many others who believed in the supernatural and might have been comforted by the fact that something supernatural happened to a skeptic to confirm their belief or made them feel a sort of safety in their ever-changing world. They became a type of coping mechanism for people and they were important, as people could relate to the meaning of the story. Some must have felt isolated because their lives were changing constantly and they felt lonely. In “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde, the theme of isolation is prevalent.

​​​​​​​           Death followed Dorian and he must have felt alone. The girl he dated, Sybil, killed herself because Dorian broke up with her. She represented purity, and Dorian was left alone in his vile ways. After her suicide, there was nothing bringing him back to his pure self because the only source of innocent in his life had now died. He became more cruel as time went on to the point where he killed people, including his friend, Basil. After killingBasil, Dorian felt extreme guilt. He didn’t feel like he could be forgiven, and went to an opium den to try and forget the memories of what he did. Despite his cruelty and his journey towards pleasure, he was alone. After he fully embraced pleasure as his ultimate goal, he had no one to go on his journey with. In the beginning he had Lord Henry, but he was not able to fully follow him because Lord Henry would grow old and the same experiences would be havoc for his body. Dorian spent eighteen years chasing pleasure, and he didn’t have anyone to come back to or anyone to spend those eighteen years with. He eventually became lonely, especially since the painting was a constant reminder of the person he had become.

​​​​​​​           This book has been criticized during the year of publication. While it was applauded by some for having a lavish writing style, it was condemned for having such immoral subject matter, which made people feel uncomfortable. However, it is important to read, as well as, consume art and media that might make one feel uncomfortable. These feelings encourage the audience to question why they are uncomfortable, and allow the audience to dig deeper at their reasons for their discomfort. Some people were too focused on the superficial aspect of the book and didn’t give thought into the deeper meanings of it. Dorian is not this evil person throughout the book. He was young and impressionable at the beginning of the book. Even though he didn’t age, he matured and figured out that life had more meaning than just pleasure. He eventually realized that life was worth living when it could end, and was isolated in this feeling because no one was in the same boat as him.

​​​​​​​           The Cold Embrace and The Picture of Dorian Gray are somewhat similar. This story ties well into The Picture of Dorian Gray because both stories have to do with a man who finds out he doesn’t love the woman they are supposed to love, and that drives the women to suicide. They have bleak endings and go through the stories being portrayed as not caring about their loneliness, but their actions say more. While Dorian becomes miserable and isolated, the nameless man in The Cold embrace travels with a dog, but he is still without someone to interact with. The last time we hear the nameless man have a conversation is when talks to the person who found his cousin’s body.

​​​​​​​           The author, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, created many stories on the idea of marriage because popular stories were idealizing marriage by saying that it would guarantee happiness for women (Schroeder, Natalie; Schroeder, Ronald A.). Braddon wanted to shatter this illusion. The Cold Embrace does just that because the nameless man marries Gertrude and what continues after is definitely not a happy ending. She rose to fame and was both loved and criticized. She must not have been the first person to notice how detrimental it can be to show young couples (especially women) that the only way to happiness is marriage. However, she possibly felt like she was the only one due to the amount of people he could talk to about how she feels. Her view was not too popular, and as a result, she might have had to keep it to herself. Similar to Gertrude in the story, she had to keep what she felt to herself.

​​​​​​​           Gertrude was the one who felt most alone in this story. She was married to the nameless man, but he fell out of love with her on his trip to Italy. She eagerly waited for his letters, which came at first, but slowly stopped. She undoubtedly felt alone during that time, which only grew worse when her father made her marry a rich man. She didn’t want to go through with it and she still loved the nameless man. She ended up committing suicide due to this. When the man came back and found her body, he felt a little bit of grief, but he eventually forgot about her. He ended up going on another trip, and took a dog with him. These two people were isolated, but in different ways. Gertrude was emotionally isolated (and possibly physically as well) while the man was more physically isolated in the beginning. He did have a dog with him, but there’s only so much one can say to a dog. The dog can’t keep up a conversation, therefore, the man had no one. That was until he found out Gertrude was haunting him. After that, he ensured that he would never be alone. However, this moves into emotional isolation. He can’t tell anyone what is happening and he doesn’t want to confront his ex-wife’s ghost. He is all alone in what he feels, and he will feel it until the end just as Gertrude did.

​​​​​​​           The Signalman seems like the odd one out. While this story doesn’t have women committing suicide due to their loves rejecting them, this story does have its main character in isolation. The signal man tells the narrator what he has been seeing, but the narrator doesn’t believe him. He has been seeing the ghost before a tragedy happens, but he is unable to do anything about it. The signal man is alone in his knowledge and his feelings. He is also physically isolated due to his job working in a railway tunnel, and without the narrator with the signalman, he wouldn’t be able to talk to anyone.

​​​​​​​           The story of The Signalman demonstrates Dickens’s thought process. He was involved in a train accident a year earlier, and was extremely traumatic for him. He wrote this story in response to what happened, which could be a type of coping mechanism. The public knew he was involved in the accident, but there would be no way of knowing how he felt about it. Mental health and psychology are not what they are today, therefore, no one would have known he most likely suffered from PTSD from the accident. No one knows for sure, but this is a big possibility. Due to this, he was also alone in his thoughts and feelings. Similar to the signalman, he could have been isolated emotionally from people. During the Victorian era, people were already worried about railway safety (Pope, Norris) and that could have been another inspiration for the story. Dickens was also worried about it and since ghost stories help people cope with real problems, this theory makes sense. This story also “reveals the insufficiency of mathematical logic and a purely scientific outlook on life…” (Mengel, Edward), which is telling about the time. Some people were nervous about what the future had to bring and they wanted to show others that science can’t explain everything. Dickens took these fears people had and created a ghost story out of them.

​​​​​​​           This story creates uncertainty in the reliability in the signalman. Not only is he alone for hours a day, the narrator can’t give him other explanations that will satisfy him. He also believes that the bell rings without the narrator hearing it, which is impossible.  The signalman has a lot of time in the railway tunnel to think about the way his life turned out. He wasted opportunities while he was younger, and believes that he deserves the life he is living in the dark railway tunnel with no one around. This is a dark thought, and it solidifies how isolated the signalman feels physically and emotionally. In the end, the narrator learns that the signalman is dead because he was looking intensely at something and wouldn’t get out of the way. The train conductor covered his face and waved his arm the same way the signalman saw the ghost do multiple times. This could mean that the signalman was getting a warning about his death. Since the narrator knew about the ghost and what the signalman saw, he can carry on the isolated feeling that the signalman felt. Not the physical isolation, but the emotional isolation about carrying this with him.

​​​​​​​           Dorian Gray was also carrying something with him that created isolation. It’s not similar to the signalman or the narrator of the story, but he had a weight on him. The immortality he possesses is his burden, even though he loved it in the beginning. He was able to do anything he desired and his body wouldn’t age or show the abuse. However, he soon learned that he valued reality. Living and not aging was not reality, and he realized that life was more precious because it wasn’t guaranteed. Life doesn’t last, but for Dorian it did. This realization made Dorian feel even more isolated from society, as he was unable to feel what they felt about life. Others wouldn’t have to think about how precious life was because it didn’t last indefinitely, but Dorian felt longing for the life they lived. His immortality was a gift in the beginning, but a curse by the end.

​​​​​​​           Dorian realized that he had no friends and was truly alone. Even though he had Lord Henry and Basil in the beginning, he didn’t act like a friend. He told Dorian his thoughts when Dorian first got to town. Basil knew how he thought about the world and his theories. The difference between a grown man hearing someone tell in an intriguing manner their immoral philosophies and telling this to a young man is that the young one is much more impressionable. Dorian must’ve been excited and intrigued at first because he had never met someone who had the same ideas about life, and it is easy to understand why he would be as interested in it as he was. After he gave his soul to never age, he learned that he was truly alone. He didn’t want Basil in his life because he was telling Dorian that what he was doing was wrong, and Dorian ended up killing him. His true isolation happened after he killed Basil because he realized there was no one there for him anymore. The only “friends” he had were the painting and the pleasures in his life, but he wanted something real.

​​​​​​​           Similar to Dorian Gray, Gertrude from The Cold Embrace also wanted something real. She held onto something she knew in her heart was gone, but she had hope. Sometimes hope can make one feel more isolated because people are saying one thing and the person knows the reality deep down, but their thoughts are clinging onto something that might not happen. In this case, if Gertrude distanced herself from the nameless man when she first had her doubts then she might not have been as upset as she was when she couldn’t be with him. This doesn’t change how hope might have made her feel even more alone while she waited.

​​​​​​​           The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Cold Embrace and The Signalman are stories that explore the theme of isolation. Dorian Gray is excited by finding out that he can never age and that the painting of him will take on the abuse and aging that Dorian should have. However, by the end he is miserable and isolated. He wants a connection with people and he desperately wants to live in the reality he knows where people grow old. He learns that life is precious because it ends, but by then it’s too late. In “The Cold Embrace,” each of the characters are isolated and alone in different ways. Gertrude is alone because her love went off on a trip and fell out of love with her. She was supposed to marry a rich man, but her father didn’t listen that she didn’t want to go through with it. She was emotionally isolated. The man was alone on his second trip even though he brought a dog with him because he couldn’t talk to anyone even though he had a dog to keep him company. Later, he had an encounter with Gertrude’s ghost and didn’t want to be alone. The man had people around him, but he didn’t have any connection. He went from being physically isolated to emotionally isolated. The Signalman was emotionally and physically isolated due to his job being in a cold, dark railway. Additionally, he missed opportunities when he was younger, and he thought about that a lot. He also had encounters with the supernatural, but the narrator didn’t believe him. That must’ve also felt terribly isolating. 

This work by Sarah Van Heuverswyn is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0




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