"Sin is the only real color-element in the modern life" : aesthetic crimes and escapism in Victorian literature
Lewis, Catherine T.
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Perhaps one of the most interesting examples of the evolving and expanding types of literary “criminals” in the Victorian period was the gentleman villain. Middle- and upper-class men sought respite from the daily pressures and expectations of repression and geniality and hid their criminal and debauched behaviors by living double lives. According to the article “The Victorian Era and the Development of the Stoic-Christian Code of Honor,” many middle-class Victorians felt that the upper classes and aristocrats had become decadent, flamboyant, materialistic, and immoral. Middle-class Victorians created a gentlemanly movement intended to counteract the immoral cultural influences from the elite and focused on encouraging temperance, rectitude, virtue, morality, and honor. This honorable code of conduct for gentlemen demanded that Victorians show extreme sexual restraint while remaining highly moral, ethical, polite, and respectable. A man striving for the gentlemanly ideal had to cultivate an honorable reputation for himself while maintaining a respectable persona. The constant demands of the gentlemanly ideal and honor code, however good in theory, imposed rules that were restrictive, stiflingly moral, and realistically unachievable. Temptation, desire, personal interests, and boredom were the obstacles to all men striving to achieve a gentlemanly status. However, as long as one could appear to be gentlemanly, respectable, and proper, then one could uphold a gentlemanly reputation while secretly indulging in unconventional or immoral desires. Gentlemen needed to separate their public and private existence, which allowed them the means of enjoying numerous pleasures and temptations without tarnishing their reputation or putting their eccentric actions under the gaze of the public eye. In this thesis, I argue that murder, grotesque violence, sexual deviance, and rampant drug abuse were used as a method of escape from the suffocating social standards and expectations of gentlemen in Victorian culture. I will focus on Victorian gentlemen (literary characters and historical figures) who experimented with drugs, violence, and unconventional sexuality and, in doing so, reinvented the role of crime by bestowing it with aesthetic properties and making the criminal act a mode of art. The sophisticated criminal acts conducted by the middle and upper class deviated from the typical Victorian crimes (vagrancy, prostitution, drunken disorderly conduct, theft, solicitation, and other petty misdemeanors) because they were performed as a way to elude themselves from the mundane, stiflingly moral Victorian society instead of the common crime for profit or personal gain.
English literature 19th century
Crime in literature