Discuss the theme of incest in Victorian literature.

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Probably the most prominent incestuous relationship in Victorian literature is that in Richard Wagner's music drama The Ring of the Nibelung (1876). Wagner based his story on Norse and Germanic mythology and created a massive stage work that is intended to be performed in four nights. Without detailing the entire...

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Probably the most prominent incestuous relationship in Victorian literature is that in Richard Wagner's music drama The Ring of the Nibelung (1876). Wagner based his story on Norse and Germanic mythology and created a massive stage work that is intended to be performed in four nights. Without detailing the entire plot, for the purpose of this question, it's the union between the characters Siegmund and Sieglinde, who are brother and sister, that results in Wagner's ultimate hero, Siegfried. Critics of the time, such as Eduard Hanslick, found the portrayal of incest offensive. "Why," Hanslick wrote, "must they be brother and sister? Merely because it is so written in the old songs of the Edda?" Hanslick viewed Wagner's approach as primitive, a step backward from even the medieval Niebelungenlied.

Wagner's huge drama is a nineteenth-century re-think of myth, just as Tennyson's Idylls of the King recreates the Arthurian legends as a kind of distant mirror of the modern age. Wagner (at this point in his career) was attempting to shelve Christianity and return what he considered the primal mythos of the Germanic peoples. So, conventional morality and strictures were shelved as well. The incestuous relationship of Siegmund and Sieglinde functions as a kind of re-birth of humanity. In the last segment of the saga, The Twilight of the Gods, the gods are destroyed, and the golden ring is returned to the Rhinemaidens. The meaning of all of this is that now, life must be seen in purely human terms.

In realistic nineteenth-century fiction, incestuous themes are hinted at or sublimated rather than shown openly. For example, in Tolstoy's War and Peace, Pierre gradually realizes that the girl he married, Helene, may have been in love with her brother. In other cases, the form taken by incest may be metaphorical rather than literal. And in Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Alec, the supposed "cousin" of Tess, forces himself on her and precipitates the whole tragic story. Another story worth mentioning, because it was a seminal work for the Romantic period (thus predating the Victorians), is the German novella Der blonde Eckbert (Blonde Eckbert) by Ludwig Tieck, in which the title character has unwittingly married his own sister, as is shockingly revealed in the tale's final twist.

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