Seminar: The Beast in the Mirror: Fictions of Degeneration

Tutor: John Rickard

Advanced Studies in England

Summer 2007


The publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859 changed the way we view ourselves as human beings. The theory of evolution opened up new possibilities for imagining the future of our species; while some writers fantasized about utopian prospects for human development, many more anxiously considered the possibility that we could as easily fall downwards on the evolutionary ladder as we could move upwards. Fantasies of degeneration proliferated in British culture, as respectable Dr. Jekylls morphed into beastly Mr. Hydes, and corrupt foreigners like Dracula threatened to pollute pure English blood. Fictions of evolutionary deterioration quickly adapted themselves to anxieties concerning imperial expansion, the racial other, and the rise of the working class.

This course will explore literary responses to ideas of evolutionary degeneration. Alongside selections from Darwin and theorists of degeneration such as Max Nordau, we will read late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century novels, including Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Robert Louis Stephenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. We will end by reading more recent works of fiction by Doris Lessing and Angela Carter and viewing the film 28 Days Later, contrasting these recent fictions with the earlier stories and asking whether the beast in the mirror has changed over the course of time.  A study trip to London will explore museum collections and locations related to the literature, and to ideas of evolution and degeneration.


Charles Darwin, Selections (PDF files)

Friedrich Nietzsche, Selections (PDF)

Cesare Lombroso and Max Nordau, Selections (PDF)

Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Signet Classics; ISBN: 0451528956)

Bram Stoker, Dracula (Oxford World's Classics; ISBN: 0192833863)

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (Norton Critical Edition, ISBN: 0393926362)

Doris Lessing, The Fifth Child (Vintage, ISBN: 0679721827)

Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (Penguin, ISBN: 014017821X)


Assessment: Each student will give an in-class presentation on one of the texts studied; this will count for 25% of the grade.  There will be two written assignments for the course: the first essay will be due on Thursday the 14th of June and worth 20%; the second essay will be due on Wednesday the 4th of July, and be worth another 30%.  I will distribute suggested essay questions in the first week of class.  Participation and performance will count for the last 25% of the grade.



M 4 June:  Introduction and discussion of Darwin and the idea of degeneration

T 5 June:  Darwin: (PDF Selections from Origin of Species and The Descent of Man)

W 6 June:  Trip to Stonehenge and Glastonbury

R 7 June:  Theories of Degeneration: PDF Selections from Friedrich Nietzsche, Cesare Lombroso, Max Nordau, and H. G. Wells


M 11 June:  Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Including Introduction and Afterword)

T 12 June:  Finish Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and begin Dracula

W 13 June:  Dracula (Read Maud Ellmann introduction)

R 14 June:  Bristol Trip – British Empire and Commonwealth Museum
First Paper Due


M 18 June:  Dracula

T 19 June:  Dracula and Cannon Schmitt, “Mother Dracula: Orientalism, Degeneration, and Anglo-Irish National Subjectivity at the Fin de Siècle” (To be distributed by instructor)

W 20 June:  Conrad, Heart of Darkness

R 21 June:  Conrad, Heart of Darkness

F 22 June – S 23 June: Study trip to London


M 25 June:  Conrad, Heart of Darkness and Chinua Achebe, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” pp. 336-349

T 26 June: Finish Heart of Darkness and discuss Apocalypse Now

W 27 June:  Lessing, The Fifth Child

R 28 June: Lessing, The Fifth Child

F 29 June: Day trip to Oxford


M 2 July:  Angela Carter, “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” and “The Tiger’s Bride”

T 3 July:  Angela Carter, “The Company of Wolves” and “Wolf Alice”

W 4 July:  28 Days Later Screening
Final essay due.  Essays MUST be handed in by today or I will not be able to mark and return them on time.

R 5 July:  28 Days Later and Conclusions


Useful Links:

The Victorian Web -- an excellent online resource originating at Brown University

Dickens' London -- a useful map and guide to Victorian London

Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement

Essays on Eugenics by Darwin's cousin Francis Galton

London in Dracula: Dracula in London