The Consequences of Disrupting the Natural Order of Things in Gothic Literature
The opposition between the natural and the unnatural is particularly prominent in gothic literature and the transgression of the boundaries between the two is often seen to be condemned. In Shakespeare’s play Macbeth(1606), Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (1818) and Angela Carter’s collection of short stories titled The Bloody Chamber (1979), the “natural order” is certainly disrupted. However, the extent to which the consequences of this disruption are necessarily bad is questionable.
In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the “evil” deeds Macbeth commits are certainly seen as transgression to the unnatural. His dabbling with the supernatural forces of the witches in the opening of the play allows the audience to form a link between Macbeth and the supernatural to an extent where a 17th century audience would certainly see them as the cause of the change in Macbeth’s character. Shakespeare uses the witches to foreshadow Macbeth’s later suffering and fall from grace with the extended metaphor of the “shipman” who “sleep shall neither night nor day”, suggesting that Macbeth’s death was an inevitable consequence after he disrupted the natural order of things. Furthermore, when considering the context of the play, the reference to the witches as the “devil” is significantly reflected in Macbeth’s murder of Duncan as a violation of one of the most significant natural boundaries of the 17th century – the divine right of Kings. This highlights that Macbeth’s actions are a direct attack on God and religion. The play’s cyclical ending – the opening and closing with a battle against a traitor to the crown – further portrays the destruction that disrupting the natural order can cause – in commenting that “blood will have blood”, Shakespeare uses this structural device to imply that a consequence of “disrupting the natural order of things” is an inevitable cycle of violence. It is the quote from the doctor in act 5 that summarises Shakespeare’s intentions; “unnatural deeds do lead to unnatural troubles”. Therefore, Macbeth can arguably be seen as a cautionary play, with death and violence being a consequence for disrupting the natural order.
Furthermore, the gothic element of the revenant is used in Macbeth to highlight the consequences of dabbling with the unnatural with the dramatic device of Banquo’s ghost. The ghost encompasses the terror linked with unrelenting guilt – according to Lady Macbeth, he is the “very painting of fear” and unlike the witches, it is only Macbeth who can see Banquo’s ghost. It is therefore clear the ghost is an externalisation of the mental state of Macbeth and a portrayal of what on one hand could be seen as remorse and on the other could be seen as a fear of others finding out the evil deeds he has committed. The terror portrayed by Macbeth is a perfect plot device in arousing suspicion amongst the Scottish nobility and acts as a harsh reminder of Macbeth’s wickedness for the audience, therefore highlighting the consequences of unnatural, evil deeds.
From a feminist perspective, when considering the gender relations in Macbeth, it appears as though the violence is seen as more unnatural when it is feminine, perhaps explaining Lady Macbeth’s eventual “troubles” – deterioration into a mental breakdown. The dialogue in the opening scenes of the play is significant when looking at that which is “natural” in regards to gender – Macbeth is introduced as “smoked with bloody execution” and while violence is seen as unnatural when it comes to the murder of a King, the violence in the context of war is seen as “brave” and like “valour’s minion” and brought good consequences – it allowed Macbeth and Banquo to have won their original honour. However, Lady Macbeth’s potential for violence is portrayed as having disastrous consequences – again, that what is unnatural, the “spirits”, are called upon to “unsex” Lady Macbeth, portraying that it is the male characters who have the true potential for evil. This taboo idea in the 17th century of transgressing the natural boundaries of gender in order to persuade Macbeth to commit his own unnatural deeds has a consequence of her own downfall. By the end of the play, Lady Macbeth’s guilt has taken her to a loss of sense – her hallucinations of the “blood” on her hands again symbolises her guilt. This highlights that while consequences may be good in some unnatural occasions – murder in the context of war – the feminine evil and the murder of an anointed King leads to terrible consequences.
Similarly, in Frankenstein, it can be argued that the acts of the creature – the murders of Victor’s family – is a clear consequence for “disrupting the natural order of things”. The pursuit of knowledge is at the heart of Frankenstein as Victor attempts to surge beyond what is acceptable for humans to know and go out in pursuit of the secret of life. Indeed, this pursuit is responsible for the main events of the text; in his quest to discover the secrets of creation, Victor Frankenstein designs and builds his “vile insect”. Frankenstein, being an epistolary novel narrated in hindsight, is thus interpreted as a cautionary tale against the pursuit of knowledge that is a disruption of the natural order. Considering the context of the novel; the enlightenment that saw revolutions in science and knowledge, it certainly makes sense that Shelley would want to portray the consequences of disrupting the natural order, in this case, the creation of life. In chapter 2, Victor tells us “It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn”, again reminding us of the importance of religion and the caution of ‘playing God’ – the fact that the creature is later referred to with harsh language such as the “devil”, highlights that a consequence of the transgression of the boundary between God and humanity is horrifying. There is little doubt that Frankenstein has contributed to the modern perception that science and knowledge can be horrifying and Shelley’s consequences of death and isolation certainly seem to be a warning against disruption of the natural.
However, while the novel uses biblical analogies to Genesis and an intertextual relationship with Paradise Lost, with the creature telling Frankenstein “I ought to be thy Adam”, this may suggest that Shelley’s focus is not what Frankenstein did, but what he fails to do; nurture his creation – chaos only ensues because he is incapable of bearing responsibility for what he produces. Frankenstein’s discussion of his childhood and the role of his own parents calls into question how far the readers can blame the “abhorrent” monster for his actions. The interpretation of the creature being inherently “evil” due to its unnatural creation comes from narrative voice of Victor – a man who is tormented by terror and regret. The inclusion of a large section of the novel being narrated by the creature itself would suggest an alternative interpretation, that he is “malicious” because he is “miserable” – in recollecting the abuse and negligence he suffers at the hands of his creator and how it prompted his quest for revenge, this would imply that the message of the novel is that knowledge and science itself isn’t dangerous, but becomes so through its misuse and abuse by society. The creature’s comment that “[I was an] innocent and helpless creature bestowed on them by heaven, whom to bring up to good”, indicates that the decision of Victor to disrupt that natural order play God is not what caused the disastrous consquences, the creature was “innocent”, it is his subsequent experience with humanity that is behind said consequences.
Furthermore, in Angela Carter’s collection of short stories titled “The Bloody Chamber”, it appears that Carter is presenting the disruption of natural order as positive and attempts to encourage it, reflecting her hopes for reality when considering gender relations in the 1970s. From a feminist perspective, it is clear that the order that Carter attempts to disrupt is the patriarchy and this is highlighted perfectly in the comparison between The Courtship of Mr Lyon and The Tiger’s Bride. The fact that these two stories are placed next to each other allows the readers to directly compare the endings, with Beauty in Mr Lyon turning into the Beast’s “spaniel”, having to accept the animal nature in him while Beauty in The Tiger’s Bride is allowed her own liberation, an escape from humanity as she experiences the growth of her “beautiful fur.” This metamorphosis is undeniably unnatural, but in this tale, the woman is able to make the choice of her own free will with the symbolic “teardrop earrings” given to her by the beast. While decorating herself with the evidence of masculine sentiment, Beauty is independent in doing so – perhaps Carter’s representation of a notion that male ideas of women will not change until women have changed themselves to be independent. The inversion of the two tales both encompass fairytale elements, yet while Mr Lyon seems to stick to the conventional, natural order of things with the consequences of Beauty losing her independence – she becomes “Mrs Lyon” and loses her name, The Tiger’s Bride allows the disruption of natural order to be presented as liberating and promising. The symbolic doll in the story further portrays this change in natural order. While the automaton that initially reflects the image of Beauty receives an “imitative life amongst men” highlighting the marginalisation of women by men, the female protagonist of the tale begins to no longer recognise herself in the doll and receives a life of freedom. It is the setting in the story that perhaps most successfully reflects this liberation, while a motif of entrapment is riddled throughout the whole collection of stories, we are told that there was no need to “lock the door” for Beauty – she has made her own decision to disrupt the natural order of the patriarchy and has found good consequences for doing so – freedom.
In conclusion, the doctor’s quote in Macbeth is the penultimate quote to describe what often appears in gothic literature – “unnatural deeds do breed unnatural troubles.” Disorder, horror and death are often portrayed as having a direct link to that which is unnatural or supernatural. However, these consequences are not necessarily bad, with the context playing a key role in gothic literature – as society progresses, it seems less consequential to disrupt the natural order.
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The opposition between the natural and the unnatural is particularly prominent in gothic literature and the transgression of the boundaries between the two is often seen to be condemned. In […]