Carnegie Mellon University

Morbid Parts: Dissection and the Gothic in the Long Nineteenth Century

Author: Rebecca May

Degree: Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies, Carnegie Mellon University, 2009

The long nineteenth century marks a unique moment in the cultural “life” of the corpse. This dissertation links gothic fiction with the practice of human dissection to show how gothic literature provides models of morbid eroticism, which, in turn, offer cultural historians of this period a framework to historicize constructions of desire, interpretation and power in a range of anatomical, medical, and dissection narratives.

Important British novels from 1750 to 1900 imagine a mutual sexual gratification entrenched in gender imbalances, violence, and death, providing a model of female sexual subjectivity that does not shy away from the intermingling of pleasure and danger, empowerment and vulnerability: Clarissa (1747-8), Jane Eyre (1847) and Wuthering Heights (1847).  Frankenstein (1818), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), and Dracula (1897), by contrast, contain gothic anatomists whose practices are troubling, self-absorbed and injurious.

Meanwhile, I study anatomical textbooks through the lens of the gothic’s dark sexuality. Emphasizing the visual power of such texts, this study shows that corpses mediated a contradictory construction of desire and historicizes the anatomist as a cultural figure. The gothic enables us to ask critical questions about the exploration of pleasure, violence and sexual expression in anatomy and surgical medicine. Eighteenth-century anatomists like John Hunter taught their nineteenth-century successors to see the injury and indecency of dissection, but also to see the corpse as something arousing, interesting, exciting and wonderful. Like and often stimulated by gothic fiction, dissections could portray sublime acts of violence and shockingly explicit acts of seduction. However, the seduction of corpses so harrowingly rendered in the anatomical illustrations of Joseph Maclise and John Bell were incompatible with Victorian ideals of propriety and professionalism. By the late 1850s we witness a lasting shift in representations of dissection and the fundamental shape of the human body with the publication of Gray’s Anatomy (1858).