Even though the 19th century is regarded as the age of growth
Even though the 19th century is regarded as the age of growth, known for scientific and technological developments, it was also the age when people started to distance themselves from the Catholic church. Especially after Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” was published in 1859, people started to question the teaching of the church and either turned to science or to spiritualism. The Victorian obsession with the afterlife and spiritualism brought back the interests in Gothic ghost stories. With that spiritualism slowly became part of everyday life, whether in literature or practice. Thus, the Victorian society was divided between spirituals, or superstitious individuals, and scientists. However, there are also many who were interested in spiritualism from the scientific point of view, like William Crookes, T.H. Huxley, and Williams James. The aim of this paper is to show how the characters in Bram Stoker’s “The Judge’s House” represent the beliefs of the Victorian society in the 19th century.
“The Judge’s House” was first published in the December 1891 issue of the Holly Leaves the Christmas Number of The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, and the first time it appeared in a book form was in 1914, in the collection Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Stories. The short story is about a young scholar, Malcolm Malcolmson, who isolates himself, so he can focus on his studies. For this, he travels to Benchurch, where he rents an old Jacobean-style house. However, he soon learns about the “absurd prejudice” concerning his new abode. Malcolm disregards the warning of Mrs Witham, saying that “A man who is reading for the Mathematical Tripos has too much to think of to be disturbed by any of these mysterious ‘somethings,’ and his work is of too exact and prosaic a kind to allow of his having any corner in his mind for mysteries of any kind.” Malcolm continues to disregard the clues that something is happening, and it leads him to his downfall.
Here, Malcolm Malcolmson is the embodiment of a stereotypical close-minded scholar, self-absorbed, sceptical, and also quite ignorant. He constantly implies that he is too smart to believe in such nonsense. He was too preoccupied with his Math problems, to pay attention to what was happening around him. With that, we can say that even though he might have been intelligent, he was more of an ignorant fool than the clever scholar he pretended to be. Maybe if he would have been more observant, he would have realized what was going on, in time and he could have survived. However, since he chose to ignore everything and isolate himself, his subconscious mind connected the information and came up with a hallucination that in the end became fatal. He showed the typical scholarly attitude, not choosing to believe things that he couldn’t prove, measure, and explain.
His polar opposite is Mrs Witham, who is regarded as superstitious, and so even though she was trying to help Malcolm in her own way, she was ignored. That’s quite realistic as at the time, and even today, people who believe in spiritualism are usually dismissed as a joke. Even though spiritualism became popular in the Victorian period, there were still people (especially scientists), who refused to accept it as a science since there was no scientific proof that the practices were real.
The third character this paper is focusing on is Dr Thornhill. Even though he was asked by Mrs Witham to come and see Malcolm, he also showed that he was quite intrigued by the man, who chose to inhabit the Judge’s House. The way he was so eager to learn about what Malcolm noticed while living there, also proves that he had a scientific interest in learning what was happening in the house, or how Malcolm’s mind reacted to the information about it. After he was questioned by Mrs Witham for telling Malcolm about the rope, he said: “My dear madam, I had a distinct purpose in it! I wanted to draw his attention to the bell rope, and to fix it there. It may be that he is in a highly overwrought state, and has been studying too much, although I am bound to say that he seems as sound and healthy a young man, mentally and bodily, as ever I saw–but then the rats–and that suggestion of the devil.” and later he added: “…He may get in the night some strange fright or hallucination; and if he does I want him to pull that rope. All alone as he is it will give us warning, and we may reach him in time to be of service. I shall be sitting up pretty late tonight and shall keep my ears open. Do not be alarmed if Benchurch gets a surprise before morning.” Which suggest that he deliberately put the idea into Malcolm’s mind, to see how he would react. Now here Dr Thornhill represents the scientists who were eager to study the scientific side of spiritualism. It is possible that while Malcolm told him about his experiences in the judge’s house, he was doing a mental diagnose of Malcolm, so that he could guess if there was any supernatural activity or just his mind was playing a nasty trick on him. In a way, we can say that even though Malcolm is believed to be the main character, he was also just a tool for Dr Thornhill’s research.
All these facts prove that the underlying theme of this short story is the conflict between spiritualism and scepticism. The characters accurately represent the beliefs of the Victorian society in the middle and at the end of the 19th century. The interpretation of the end is, in the typical Victorian ghost story fashion, up to the reader. Those who believe in spiritualism will say that the Judge’s ghost killed Malcolm, while people who claim to be rational will believe that Malcolm’s unconscious mind played a fatal trick on him.