The Gothic Epidemic

Across the centuries, the social and cultural impacts of epidemics have resonated with writers. Whether concerned with the spiritual implications of these catastrophic events, as in Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), issues of individual versus collective responsibility, such as in Albert Camus’s The Plague (1947), or questions about the limitations and permissions of quarantines in Sheri Holman’s The Dress Lodger (2000), epidemics continue to provide a backdrop against which to examine human experience. Particularly relevant in our current global circumstances, these narratives show an enduring concern about illness and its place in our personal and collective histories.

‘A Court for King Cholera’, Punch Magazine

As Sebastian Domsch reasons, this tension between the personal and the public is a fundamentally Gothic one, as he argues that ‘the antagonism between individual and society is very much at the core of the Gothic experience’. In this way, the experience of contagious illness, necessarily interpersonal and often subject to community-level measures of prevention or containment, can be seen as inarguably Gothic. Additionally, the consideration of certain degenerating illnesses might be considered self-evidently part of this canon, invoking late-Victorian fears of declining social order, a monstrous, pervasive threat within the body (and body politic) which lurks ‘beneath the surface of civilised order’. Infection, both literal and metaphoric, dominates nineteenth-century Gothic, and underlines the wider implications of the representation of illness in this tradition.

The Last Man (1826)

Cover image of the Wordsworth edition of The Last Man

A notable example of the Gothic epidemic story is Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826). Often hailed as the earliest known example of dystopian or post-apocalyptic literature, Shelley’s narrative records, ostensibly from a real-life account, the progression of a pandemic sweeping across the world in the 21st century (perhaps slightly too prescient reading at the moment). The unidentified plague which spreads towards Britain and the novel’s protagonists is implied to be somehow person-to-person contagious, drawing on emerging theories of the circulation of disease. Like Shelley’s earlier Frankenstein (1818), the limitations of scientific knowledge provide the novel’s ultimate, fearful message. The scientific figure here is Merrival, an astronomer who, whilst others ‘discussed the best means of preventing infection, and of preserving health’, instead considers the movement of the poles of the Earth. Merrival’s obliviousness to the plague is punished as his family succumb to the illness and eventually die, perhaps demonstrating the fallibility of current scientific endeavour as Shelley saw it.

The titular last man, Lionel Verney, survives the pandemic and resolves to search for other survivors as he wanders the Earth for his remaining days. This final image of isolation is often seen as a rebuttal of Enlightenment ideology, that human progress can be inevitably achieved through collective effort. Alongside Merrival’s portrayal, Verney’s ultimate fate indicates a clear break from Romantic political ideals, and another adherence to key Gothic tropes. Kelly Hurley notes the emergence of the ‘abhuman’, in Gothicism, which ‘in place of the possibility of human transcendence’ offers only ‘the prospect of an existence circumscribed within the realities of gross corporeality’. In The Last Man, this abhumanism is clear, affirming that human corporeality, made stark by our susceptibility to illness, might inevitably stand in the way of progress.

‘The Masque of the Red Death’ (1842)

Illustration for “The Masque of the Red Death” by Harry Clarke, 1919

This focus on the ‘abhuman’ can also be identified in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ in which a fictional plague, named because its primary symptom is bleeding from the pores, travels through a grand abbey where around a thousand nobles are in hiding to avoid catching the disease from the public. Widely considered to be an allegory about the inevitability of death, and the hubris of the wealthy, Poe’s epidemic story draws on several key Gothic tenets to explore the rejection of the possibility of transcendence, but, unlike The Last Man, focuses on interpersonal responsibility rather than ultimate isolation.

The abbey provides a palpably Gothic setting to Poe’s moralistic tale but one which, though reinforced from violent threat, proves impotent when faced with a contagious intruder. A cloaked figure in a blood-spattered funeral shroud appears among the guests and passes through the rooms of the Abbey, killing the story’s protagonist, Prince Prospero, before being unveiled by the other guests only to find that the shroud is empty. An epidemiological twist on the classic ghost story, Poe’s narrative underlines the indiscriminateness of infectious disease, but also looks more widely to the inescapability of mortality. In this way, the story’s ultimate message might be one of interpersonal responsibility, that in the epidemic, the personal and the public are unavoidably intertwined.

As Shelley and Poe both demonstrate, infectious diseases operate, in fiction and beyond, as more than just scientific concepts. The ‘abhuman’ comes to the fore in both stories, as the intense corporeal reality of infectious illness undermines attempts at Romantic transcendence, and scientific progress is challenged by humanistic messages of interconnectivity. Implicit in the consideration of the Gothic epidemic is an exploration of the place of the self in society, the interpersonal responsibilities we have towards one another as humans, and the monstrous potential of contagion.

Further reading

  • Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Masque of the Red Death’, The Masque of the Red Death and Other Stories (London: Penguin, 2008 [1842])
  • Mary Shelley, The Last Man (Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 2004 [1826])
  • Sebastian Domsch, ‘Monsters against Empire: The Politics and Poetics of Neo-Victorian Metafiction in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’, in Marie-Luise Kohlke and Christian Gutleben (eds) Neo-Victorian Gothic: Horror, Violence and Degeneration in the Re-Imagined Nineteenth Century (Amsterdam and New York, NY: Rodopi, 2012), pp. 97–121
  • Kelly Hurley, The Gothic Body: Sexuality, Materialism, and Degeneration at the Fin de Siecle (Cambridge and New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2004 [1996])
  • Maya Phillips, ‘The Rich Can’t Hide From a Plague. Just Ask Edgar Allan Poe’, Slate 26th March 2020, https://slate.com/culture/2020/03/edgar-allan-poes-masque-of-the-red-death-is-an-allegory-for-the-age-of-coronavirus.html

Post by Rosie Crocker. Rosie Crocker is a first-year PhD student at the University of Sheffield, examining ‘medical men’ and depictions of doctors in neo-Victorian writing. Her research, also around illness narratives, resurrectionism, and contagion in literature, is funded by the AHRC through the White Rose Consortium. She is a graduate of Cardiff and Durham University, and can usually be found out wandering the Peaks or befriending the cats of Sharrow.

@SheffieldGothic