Deadly Diction: Examining Emerging Medical Anxieties in “The Body-Snatcher”

Part of the appeal of studying literature in university is bearing witness to the human experience through the centuries. Victorian gothic literature explores a variety of emerging anxieties, and the emergence of medicine as both a profession and an authority throughout the nineteenth century became intertwined with gothic literature. Laurence Talairach-Vielmas argues that nineteenth-century gothic literature was both a vessel for spreading knowledge about emerging medicine, and a means through which the public could engage with it in “‘I Have Bottled Babes Unborn’: The Gothic, Medical Collections and Victorian Popular Culture.” Talairach-Vielmas explores the propagation of knowledge and documentation of public reactions in gothic literature by way of a wide variety of works, and the literary methods within them, including examining diction as a means to convey multiple messages. My short analysis will extend the study of diction to convey messages of anxiety that apply to Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Body-Snatcher,” and its place within the corpus of gothic literature concerned with the anxiety surrounding the emergence of medicine. Through its nefarious diction, the text conveys a mood of anxiety relating to the treatment of bodies in the emerging authority and profession of medicine. 

Talairach-Vielmas uses the concept of ‘modern villains’ to demonstrate that rooting wrongdoing with medicine creates a new kind of villain, one associated with the medical profession (38). The text uses disturbing descriptions to further the status of the two main characters, the young doctors Fettes and Macfarlane, as modern villains. The diction specifically references the dehumanization of the bodies they illegally obtain, which Talairach-Vielmas argues is a persistent concern within gothic narrative pertaining to the emergence of medical practice (38). In one particular case, Fettes is presented with the body of a young girl that he recognizes, while also worrying that others may recognize her as well, and he seemingly rehumanizes her by calling her by name, Jane Galbraith, to identify her body. However, the text reinforces the dehumanizing process that is the dissection of bodies for medical knowledge through the diction, which emphasizes that her body was “duly dissected” and that nobody in the classroom came to recognize her (Stevenson 310). As a result of being no longer referred to as Jane, but rather the “body of the unfortunate girl,” along with the act of no one recognizing her body the dehumanizing process is elucidated; the main perpetrators and catalysts for this process being Fettes and Macfarlane who are in charge of accepting illegally obtained bodies (Stevenson 310). 

The act of body snatching and dissection are a critical part of the text and it situates Fettes and Macfarlane irrevocably within those acts depicting them as modern villains committing dehumanizing acts. 

Furthermore, in reference to the act of body-snatching, the text refers to bringing bodies back to be dissected as leaving with their “booty” thereby stripping the bodies of being associated with human bodies, but now rather being associated with treasure (Stevenson 309). Bodies are also called the “unfriendly relics of humanity” (Stevenson 307); the word choice of relics connotes that bodies are being taken apart and used as objects. Finally, in describing at length Fettes and Macfarlane’s last experience of body-snatching together, the diction heavily remarks on the depravity of it by using words like “abhorred task” and “horrid contact” (317). The body within the gig is described as the “thing they had along with them” (318). The act of body snatching and dissection are a critical part of the text and it situates Fettes and Macfarlane irrevocably within those acts depicting them as modern villains committing dehumanizing acts. 

The anxiety surrounding the emerging medical act of dissection has spurred a creation of modern villains in the body-snatching that Fettes and Macfarlane do to provide bodies for the advancement of medical knowledge. Specifically, through the process of establishing the dehumanization, through the diction, the text expresses fears associated with emerging medical practices. Although Talairach-Vielmas’s article does not incorporate Stevenson’s “The Body-Snatcher” some of the ideas converge through an analysis of the diction within the text. The gothic narrative within “The Body-Snatcher” records some of the anxiety stemming from the unknown associated with an emerging profession shadowed by gory stories working to interpret it.

Works Cited

Stevenson, Robert Louis. “The Body-Snatcher.” The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories, edited by Michael Cox and R. A. Gilbert, Oxford University Press, 2003, pp. 303-318. 

Talairach-Vielmas, Laurence. “‘I Have Bottled Babes Unborn’: The Gothic, Medical Collections and Victorian Popular Culture.” Gothic Studies, vol. 17, no. 1, May 2015, pp. 28–42.

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