The Moral Freak

Posted by Matt Foley on February 12, 2009 in Blog tagged with

Post-modern Gothic has an ambivalent attitude to the relationship between freakish appearances and inner moralities. Fred Botting, around the turn of the current century, commented that "in a (post)modern world… love all monsters, love your monster as yourself, becomes the new refrain" (Botting 2001, p. 3). Perhaps this idea can be fleshed out in terms of freakishness and inner morality. The notion of the loveable freak with morals – the ethical, monstrous elephant man – can be seen as a reaction to, and movement away from, fin de siecle essentialism.

In tackling Bram Stoker’s literary corpus critics, in many cases, focus upon Stoker’s predilection for fictionally staging an adherence to physiognomy. A succinct critical example is David Glover’s reading of both Dracula and the lesser-known novel The Jewel of The Seven Stars (1992, pp. 983-1002). Glover, in an aside, also reveals that a young Winston Churchill was subject to Stoker’s phrenological analysis and so reveals that Stoker saw a link between real people’s inner qualities and surface appearances. In a Daily Chronicle article of 1908 Stoker eulogises that Churchill’s, "mouth is an orator’s mouth; clear cut, expressionable, and not small. The forehead is both broad and high, with a fairly deep vertical line above the nose; the chin strong and well-formed" (ibid, p.987). In terms of fictional staging, Glover argues that,

"not only are Count Dracula’s malevolent power’s recognizable from his "fixed and rather cruel looking mouth" or "his peculiarly arched nostrils," but when we meet Dr. Van Helsing… moral fitness can be immediately discerned from his "large, resolute, mobile mouth," and his "good-sized nose… with quick, sensitive nostrils, that seem to broaden as the big bushy eyebrows come down and the mouth tightens" (ibid).

It is clear, then, that in both the imaginative world of fiction and the dusty, corporeal political world Stoker believed in an unequivocal link between personality, innate skill and appearance. The question arises, however, as to when this idea first arose, during the creative act of fiction or as an observation of reality? Also, why could Stoker not decouple the two?

Phrenology, with as much certainty as is possible in scientific discourse, has been disproved and as an essentialist fallacy has become something of a joke in the contemporary real world. Fiction, however, persists in allowing a vent for partially judging characters through physicality; but it is only liberally acceptable if staged in terms of monstrosity and not with racist undertones. A creepy recent example of monstrosity that involves anatomy reflecting innate characteristics is Pan’s Labyrinth’s (2006) The Pale Man, with his elongated fingers mirroring his desire to grasp, cut and eat children and his removable eyes affirming a castrative impulse that is awoken by gluttony and over-indulgence:



However, a mixture of post-modern play and a staunch resistance to essentialist readings of appearance has infected fiction too. One need only look once more at Guillermo Del Torro’s back catalogue to see a striking example of freaks who are morally upright (at least in a legal sense):

Hellboy (2004), however, is not in anyway revolutionary as X-men began exposing the gap between surface freakishness and inner morality in the 1960s and there could be earlier examples (can anyone think of any?). However, Botting’s embracing of the monstrous is certainly at play here.

 It is difficult to get a general argument going but perhaps I can posit it in the following terms. Stoker’s comments on Churchill seem to invoke a hobby horse, or Achilles’ heel, in reasoning; Churchill is firstly a great orator and Stoker, in turn, notes that he has an orator’s face and believes there is a reasonable link between the two. In this case, personality comes first and phrenology – the fallacy – backs it up. Surely racism is a reversal of this: characteristic is valued over personality or skill.

In terms of fiction, though, things get a bit sticky. Can we say that Dracula’s appearance is purely a symptom of his personality, or does appearance inflect personality? Is the chicken first, or the egg? Hellboy clearly divides the two: a moral person can look like a hellish creature and thus a normal appearance is not a pre-requisite for an admiral moral slant. However, does the morally perverse, horrific monster, like the Paleman in Pan’s Labyrinth, not persist in providing a freakish canvas of Otherness onto which we subjects can project natural anxieties about unfamiliar physical appearance?


Botting, F 2001. The Gothic. D.S Brewey: Cambridge.

Glover, D 1992. ‘Bram Stoker and the Crisis of the Liberal Subject’. In New Literary History, Vol. 23, No. 4, Papers from the Commonwealth Center for Literary and Cultural Change (Autumn, 1992), pp. 983-1002.

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