Incest in Victorian Literature Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Incest in Victorian Literature

The complex human reaction to incest and its prohibition have taken a central position in psychological and sociological scholarship from these disciplines' early twentieth-century beginnings up through today. The taboo of incest in the physical, emotional, and moral senses, especially in father-daughter and brother-sister relationships, was a familiar and persistent theme in literature during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early-twentieth centuries, and consequently has been a popular focus of modern critical discussion.

Anthropologists and psychologists focused heavily on the study of incest in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Considered a universally prohibited act by most Victorians, it took center-stage when Sigmund Freud gave the wish for incest and its repression or sublimation a central role in human psychological growth and development. In contrast to this fairly recent anthropological and psychological interest, the significance of incest has long been acknowledged in literature; the theme gained special treatment in Jacobean Drama, the eighteenth-century novel, the novels of the American South, and in Romantic Poetry. Literary critics contend that, especially for the Romantic Poets, the incest theme is at the heart of writing about sibling relationships. The Romantics emphasized shared childhood experiences between brothers and sisters, basing the perfection of their union upon the mutual associations built during an idyllic childhood. Critics view this interpretation and representation of brother-sister relationships as being closely related to the Romantic valorization of childhood, where the familial bond is so strong that it survives and is more powerful than anything either adult sibling can feel for someone else. In the eighteenth-century novel, by contrast, brothers and sisters are usually separated at birth and form an attraction to each other during the course of the story. This mutual appeal is a result of the nature versus nurture conflict and is used to illustrate the intuitive attraction of a blood tie.

Most incestuous relationships, including those idealized by the Romantic poets, end in tragedy. Freud saw this tragic culmination as equivalent to the standard punishment for incest in primitive times—death. He interpreted the relationships featured even in such works as The White Doe of Rylstone (1815), where the brother and sister do not share a sexual relationship but are remarkably close and share a common fate, as implicitly incestuous. But there were numerous other overtly incestuous relationships depicted in Romantic poetry and writing, including Lord Byron's Manfred (1817) and Shelley's Laon and Cythna (1818), all of which culminate in tragedy. For the Romantic poets in particular, incest represented a facet of extreme self-love, in addition to the potentially purest form of love. Although it was incorrect in society's eyes, this very mixture of social defiance and self-degradation made the theme of incest attractive to many writers. Variations on the sibling relationship theme as developed by the Romantics exist in Victorian literature as well, although not as explicitly. Two compelling examples of the Victorian manifestation of incest in literature that are often cited by critics are The Mill on the Floss (1860) and Wuthering Heights (1847).

While the incest theme dates back to classical literature, there is a lack of agreement among sociologists and anthropologists regarding the incest taboo and its origins. This inconsistency, in fact, has led many scholars to believe that the taboo derives not from some inherent moral code, but from our self-imposed need to separate ourselves from the animal world where all sexual activity is indeterminate. The derivation of the word “incest”, which means incestum or “unchaste” in Latin, supports this interpretation. Incest has been treated as both a taboo and a special privilege in different eras. The Adam and Eve story, say some critics, posits incest as the very foundation of humankind. Many scholars contend that the controversy regarding the “incest taboo as a result of innate revulsion” has been effectively refuted, especially since there is a long history of stringent laws and punishments against incest. For many of these scholars, the incest taboo is a representation of our most fundamental attempt at social order. According to this theory, the family unit is the most basic representation of social order. Incest represents a serious violation of that order and is therefore disruptive and animalistic.

By 1490 B.C.E. restrictions against incest were firmly established. Sociologists theorize that the world population had increased to the point where the introduction of restrictions on sexual mating was in fact necessary. From this point on, the punishment for incest was consistent throughout differing cultures and ages, though definitions of incest vary according to time and place. Significant legal measures against incest in England coincided with two major literary periods—the Elizabethan and the Victorian. In 1583 Queen Elizabeth I began penalizing incest and created a court of high commission to address crimes associated with it. The next major legal act regarding incest did not become reality until 1908, when the Punishment of Incest Act was passed. Although there were concerns that legal strictures would call attention to the offense and lead to increased frequencies of occurrence, the act simply resulted in more cases being brought to court. And while sociological data provides a valuable context for the recurrence of the incest theme at various times in literature, most critics acknowledge the lack of correspondence between life and literature.

What is consistent between life and literature, however, is that the most common incestuous relationship occurs between fathers and daughters. Precipitating causes for these relationships in real life mirror those represented in literature—an absent mother, a nubile daughter, and/or a radical polarization in the family. Critics also agree that most literature of incest presents a paternalistic culture, where feminine desire for masculine approval is cultivated. By the nineteenth century, the growing cultural repression of purely incestuous impulses made it increasingly difficult to detect acts of incest in literature as they began to be more symptomatically expressed. With the development of Freudian analysis in the early twentieth-century, discussion of incest and its emotional, moral impetus was brought out in the open. The fundamental components of psychoanalytic literary criticism were in place and all literature could now be analyzed in light of incestuous relationships, real or inferred, in search of a deeper understanding of both the work and ourselves.