~ Tobias Locke
Abstract: Penny Dreadful’s commercial and critical success stems from its transformative adaptation of the Gothic literary canon that precipitated it, and its willingness to use that adaptation as a vehicle for contemporary discourse. While previous and current scholarly literature has linked Penny Dreadful with theories of adaptation, there has little focus yet on the active role the series’ characters play in this process. As admixtures of canonical and semi-original creations, Penny Dreadful’s principal characters are a driving force behind its adaptation of the Gothic, and act as powerful instances of cultural criticism, as exemplified in the character of Ethan Chandler. As a textual hybrid who inhabits multiple Gothic character archetypes simultaneously, Ethan is uniquely positioned to act as the series’ cultural critique of ideologies surrounding Victorian and contemporary masculinity.
The year is 1891, around late September. Some nights past, a nest of vampires was slain in an abattoir beneath an East End opium den, but the London public is more concerned with a mother and child dismembered in a tenement some blocks over, not far from the garret where Victor Frankenstein assembles his latest creature. The Whitechapel crowds whisper amongst themselves: “Is it the Ripper come back?” and newspapers stoke public excitement with sensationalist headlines. One can only imagine the coverage if they knew the killer was a werewolf. Meanwhile, in the sedate mansions of Westminster, an African explorer and a medium discuss the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and Dorian Gray expands his private pornography collection (Logan Penny Dreadful 1.01 “Night Work”, 1.02 “Séance”).
This smorgasbord of the Victorian Gothic, as reimagined by screenwriter John Logan, comprises the narrative foundations of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful (2014-2016), which over the course of three seasons garnered critical acclaim and a voracious international fandom. Much of its success came from the way it reimagined rather than outright adapted its source texts: “If its literature were a song,” writes Slayton , “Penny Dreadful is an addictive remix instead of a cover that loses the potency and point” of the original. Slayton’s distinction is critical: despite Penny Dreadful’s appropriation of characters, themes, and narrative elements originating from archetypal Gothic texts – Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Picture of Dorian Gray – showrunner John Logan was more interested in using these precursor texts as “provocation” for the series’ own narrative than making Penny Dreadful a straightforward adaptation (Wightman). Rather than faithfully re-presenting the Gothic canon on the small screen, Penny Dreadful acted as an admixture of its source material that destabilized the patrilineal relationship between adaptation and adapted text to favor the adaptation. This destabilizing comes from the series’ deliberately “un-naming” of its precursor texts, a means of creative development first articulated by Bloom (10). By refusing to situate itself as “descended” from any single text, Penny Dreadful freed itself of the expected “adherence to plot or character development” that constitutes direct adaptation; instead, the series situated its precursors in purely “generic terms: the penny dreadful, that which is, by its nature, derivative and second hand” (Poore 70-71). This deliberately obfuscated and self-reflexive relationship to its literary precursors and allowed John Logan the creative freedom re-present some of the Gothic’s “iconic characters in a new way” (Logan “Inside Penny Dreadful”). Even when canonical characters like Victor Frankenstein appeared in-narrative, they were ‘bespoke’ hybrids formed from their originals and other (occasionally disparate) Victorian Gothic archetypes, “calculatedly anachronistic” creations cut from a “vaguely familiar” cloth (Logan “Penny Dreadful: A New Narrative”; Poore 73). This allowed Penny Dreadful to sidestep what critic Joanna Russ terms “generic decadence,” whereby genre stories become “petrified collections of rituals, with all freshness and conviction gone” (49). More importantly for this discussion, the hybridity of the show’s characters situates them amidst one of the Gothic’s principal discursive archetypes: the abhuman, through which Gothic media demarcates or interrogates the ideological division between the human and monstrous. It is how Penny Dreadful’s characters function in the latter sense that will guide the focus of this paper, which pays particular attention to the character of Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett).
In this discussion, due emphasis is placed on John Logan’s original characters, around which the series’ “central spine” was built (Logan “Penny Dreadful: A New Narrative”). Previous scholarship has almost exclusively prioritised Penny Dreadful’s heroine, Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), whom Logan constructed as the series’ centrepiece (“Penny Dreadful: A New Narrative”): a haunted young woman scarred both by the constraints of her society and an all-too-tangible inner darkness that demands violently destructive or sexual self-expression. Penny Dreadful uses Vanessa as a pointed deconstruction of Gothic femininity by presenting her as a “character whose sexuality plays out along traditionally male story markers” and fulfills a narrative role more akin to the Byronic hero than the Gothic heroine (Poore 73; Valentine). Vanessa is bold, inquisitive, and passionate, which encourages her rebellion “against the theological [and] social patterns of [her] day” and exposes her to a world of demons and supernatural darkness, precipitating the series’ core conflict (Gosling and Logan 123). Vanessa-as-Byronic-figure is able to critique the lassitude and domesticated feminine purity of the traditional Gothic heroine, not only by her agency in the series’ narrative, but by existing as a fully realised and flawed character in her own right (Poore 73; Luckhurst xxii).
This paper does not aim to dispute these findings – Vanessa Ives is a central vehicle for analysing Penny Dreadful’s self-reflexive relationship to the Gothic – but it expands them, by applying the same analysis to another of the series’ original characters: Ethan Chandler. Like Vanessa, Ethan’s character embodies multiple generic archetypes: the gunslinger cowboy of Western fiction, the tortured and introspective Gothic/Romantic hero, and the changeling victim/victimizer of the werewolf. Unlike Vanessa, who exists outside of convention from the series’ outset (be it going gloveless at a dinner party or later seeking the help of an alienist), Ethan is initially depicted in conventional, even generic terms, as a rugged and rebellious trigger man, and only reveals his hybrid identity through a series of transformative moments throughout Penny Dreadful’s first season. These transformative instances complicate his previous characterisation, and positions Ethan, like Vanessa, as a critique of the gendered ideologies inherent in the archetypes he performs: specifically the bodily mastery and patriarchal dependency of the cowboy and the egotism of the Romantic hero. The revelation of Ethan’s “morphic varability” as a werewolf undermines the bodily mastery of the cowboy and Romantic hero, and positions Ethan, like most of the series’ cast-, as an ‘outsider,’ someone who, by their actions, ideology, or existence, threatens societal norms (Hurley 1996 3-4). However, Ethan-as-werewolf also emphasizes the individual introspection and sublime connection to nature inherent to the cowboy and Romantic hero archetypes; his abhuman state foregrounds Ethan’s part in Penny Dreadful’s central “reframing of the monster narrative” and associated cultural critique (Thomas; Hurley 2012 198). This self-reflexive and transformative relationship with character archetype typifies the show’s relationship to its precursor texts and the wider Gothic genre, and is fundamental to our understanding of its success in adapting the Gothic for the twenty-first century.
Lover, Liar, Lycanthrope – Ethan Chandler and Character Archetype
Despite my earlier description of Penny Dreadful’s central characters as “original,” there exists a more accurate descriptor – what Poore terms a ‘bespoke’ character. “Bespoke” characters, he claims, are “calculatedly anachronistic reflections” of character archetypes from Penny Dreadful’s precursor texts: figures pieced together from a traditionally Gothic pattern, but with an explicitly “modern” sensibility (73). The “vaguely familiar” nature of these bespoke characters allows John Logan to guide the audience to expect particular narrative outcomes, while affording him the creative freedom to meet or subvert these expectations to a greater degree than he could with Penny Dreadful’s canonical characters (“Penny Dreadful: A New Narrative”). This methodology is what Logan uses when he first introduces the audience to Ethan, in the third scene of Penny Dreadful’s pilot. The opening titles and preceding scenes firmly establish the show as high Gothic Victoriana, with images of blood-filled teacups and scarab beetles, East End tenants being torn apart by unidentified assailants, and introducing us to Vanessa Ives as she fends off a nightly demonic visitation ( 1.01, “Night Work”). This makes our introduction to Ethan Chandler all the more tonally jarring: we snap to a scene of light and colour, gunfire and brass bands as he swaggers through a sharpshooting exhibit in a Wild West show. Ethan is dressed as a caricature of the “gunfighters of the old American West, such as Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill Cody” (Sinha-Roy): long flowing curls, a sheriff’s star, buckskins, cowboy hat, and a moustache so extravagant it covers his entire mouth as he recounts General Custer’s last stand against the Sioux at Little Bighorn (which he claims to have survived), all the while juggling horseshoes in the air with shots from his pistols. While Ethan certainly entertains the crowd (with Vanessa a steely-eyed exception), the sheer extravagance of his routine makes it come off as the kind of weary almost-parody that denotes decadent genre (Russ 49-50); Ethan himself can barely suppress a sigh as he wraps up his tale of pluck and daring.
The only hint we get that there might be a genuine cowboy beneath all the greasepaint is when Ethan, in an impromptu finale, shoots the feathers off a lady’s hat, cheekily winking at the riotous applause and earning a wry smile from Vanessa. We cut to him enthusiastically copulating with the woman whose hat he shot; afterward, in the midst of tearing off his stage moustache (to reveal another underneath), he tells his conquest that while she’s made his visit “truly memorable,” the “peripatetic” life of a theatrical is calling him away, just as the lure of the wild open ranges would call cowboys away from their sweethearts (Aronson and Kimmel 188). Even here, when we begin to see Ethan as a genuine gunslinger, there’s a self-awareness present; instead of being despondent, his partner merely asks if he’d like to know her name before he departs – indicating both are somewhat aware their encounter is all part of the show. By the time we move to the next scene, the show expects us to have a clear impression of Ethan’s character: a “brash, cocky American” gunslinger “who survives on his wits as much as his frequently-drawn guns” and “has a tentative relationship with the right side of the law,” despite the hint of performativity underpinning his roguish charm (Gosling and Logan 18). Yet Logan uses Ethan’s next scene to complicate his inhabiting the cowboy archetype, by pitting him against Vanessa and her uncanny powers of perception. Seated across from Vanessa, Ethan’s flirtatious Western drawl becomes less a part of his character than “a mask of on-stage bravado” (Gosling and Logan 19); she asks for his help with some “night work,” he responds with flirtation, leading her to bluntly query whether Ethan’s shooting ability and Western pluck are “a tall tale as well.” Ethan responds lackadaisically – “What do you think?” – and Vanessa ripostes with the following:
Expensive watch, but thread-bare jacket. Sentimental about the money you used to have. Your eye is steady but your left hand tremors, that’s the drink, so you keep it below the table hoping I won’t notice. You’ve a contusion healing on your other hand, the result of a recent brawl with a jealous husband, no doubt. Your boots are good quality leather but have been re-soled more than once…I see a man who has been accustomed to wealth but has given himself to excess and the unbridled pleasures of youth…A man much more complicated than he likes to appear. ( 1.01, “Night Work”)
Ethan’s response to her analysis is telling – he maintains his Western cockiness at first, but as she continues, becomes visibly uncomfortable, before staging his first transformative moment, revealing a steely calm as he asks if Vanessa means to have him murder someone. He attempts to cover this ruthlessness by reverting to his cowboy persona when he accepts the offer – “One smile and I say yes” – but it doesn’t take, and Ethan is left contemplative and half-in shadow, a picture of Romantic moral ambiguity.
In the next few scenes, as Ethan joins Vanessa and Sir Malcolm Murray in their vampire hunt, Penny Dreadful moves into the realm of an oblique Dracula adaptation (Slayton). Through our awareness of Dracula as one of Penny Dreadful’s source texts, and the vague familiarity inherent in Ethan’s characterization, we are guided to assume Ethan will “echo” Stoker’s Quincey Morris as the brash and romantic “muscle” of Penny Dreadful’s burgeoning “band of heroes” (Crow; Logan “Penny Dreadful: A New Narrative”). This expectation, which has been echoed by most television critics, is not unreasonable: like Quincey, Ethan is the outsider in both a geographical (an American in London) and generic sense (a cowboy in a Gothic narrative); he enters the realm of the supernatural in pursuit of a haunted female figure (Vanessa Ives or Lucy Westenra/Mina Harker), and most importantly, his American brashness acts as a powerful symbol of modernity amidst Gothic antiquity and superstition. Quincey’s moral fortitude and worldliness prove instrumental in holding the “band of heroes” together in the face of the vampiric threat, and essential to defeating Dracula, who meets his end courtesy of Quincey’s “very Texan Bowie knife”; furthermore, as namesake to Jonathan and Mina’s son, Quincey represents the American-led future of the 20th century (Crow, emphasis original; Stoker 162, 350-51). Logan seems to echo this American-as-modern mindset through Ethan by creating him specifically as the contemporary American audience’s “eyes into the story,” assuming an American character would be easier for audiences to follow into the ‘alien landscape’ of Victorian London and its supernatural demimonde (Gosling and Logan 20; Logan “Inside Penny Dreadful”).
However, a cowboy cannot survive in a Gothic world: Quincey dies at Dracula’s hands (Stoker 350), and the “guts and glory” of the archetypal cowboy cannot be sustained in the face of supernatural terror: Ethan flees the demimonde, despite his fascination with Vanessa, and her enigmatic claims that he seeks to escape a curse similar to her own ( 1.01, “Night Work”; Aronson and Kimmel 188). When Ethan returns in the second episode of the series, however, Logan stages another transformative moment: the episode opens with Ethan ‘standing alone, disoriented and bemused, on the cold, wind-swept shores of the Thames. Gone is the confidence and strength of the archetype’ that Ethan initially embodied; instead we see a tortured ambivalence that ‘makes Ethan, just for a moment, as alone in his strangeness as Vanessa is in hers, or as Frankenstein in his terrible knowledge’ (Gosling and Logan 19; 1.02, “Séance”). This expands on the hints of Romanticism we saw in the pilot, and integrates Ethan further into the show’s developing narrative cosmology.
If Penny Dreadful were a Dracula adaptation, this transformation would be (at least perceived as) a deviation from its source; rather, it reveals new patterns and connections inherent in the cowboy archetype that created both Quincey and Ethan. The archetypal cowboy is a wanderer, “unconstrained by the demands of civilized life” (Aronson and Kimmel 188). Expand upon the individualistic moral code and rebellious mystique of the cowboy, and conflate his quest for a personal form of “justice” with a quest for individual understanding or redemption, and the result will mirror the brooding egotism and existential angst of Romantic heroes from earlier Gothic fiction (Aronson and Kimmel 122-3). Thus, Ethan-as-Romantic hero is less deviation from and more expansion of his original gunslinger characterisation, allowing his character to move beyond merely echoing Quincey Morris as a cowboy in a Gothic novel, and develop a more active role in Penny Dreadful’s emergent narrative.
Furthermore, Ethan’s Romantic elements add depth and nuance to his character as he echoes Quincey Morris later throughout the series, most notably in the second-to-last episode of the first season, when Vanessa suffers a violent demonic possession. This episode acts as another oblique Dracula adaptation: Ethan, Frankenstein, Sembene, and Sir Malcolm’s four-week vigil at Vanessa’s bedside echoes the gathering of van Helsing, Quincey, Arthur Holmwood, and Jack Seward to prevent Lucy Westenra’s death from the vampire’s attacks (Stoker 104-52) and later, to save Mina Harker from vampiric infection. Subsequently, Ethan moves into an approximation of Quincey’s role throughout the episode as both watchman and moral centre of the group, and like Quincey, is the one to first offer Vanessa the option of a ‘clean’ death before she succumbs to her monstrosity ( 1.07 “Possession”; Stoker 305). “Unlike Quincey, Ethan grapples with the ethical quandary of either killing Vanessa, or letting her live and prolonging her suffering, bringing him into conflict with Sir Malcolm, who, echoing van Helsing with Mina, attempts to use Vanessa to track down the remaining vampires in London. Furthermore, in an extended bout of introspection, Ethan laments Vanessa’s position as outcast between worlds, comparing it to the Americanising of Native American children, who are ultimately outcast from either world. Ethan’s soliloquy not only castigates British and American colonialist ideology through a supernatural lens, but also acts as a self-reflexive criticism of his own archetypal position as a cowboy who tamed the Western frontier to serve white American expansion (Aronson and Kimmel 188; 1.07, “Possession”). As we later learn, it was Ethan’s role in the Indian Wars and the wholesale slaughter of Native peoples that shaped his Romantic introspection and moral crisis, and that rather than a cowboy’s sense of honor, it is a Romantic desire for atonement that drives Ethan to commit to protecting Vanessa from the supernatural forces that hunt her: “You will not die while I am here. You will not surrender while I live. If I have one goddamn purpose in my cursed life, it’s that” ( 2.07, “Little Scorpion”). The visual and narrative context around this dialogue – which echoes a similar declaration of fealty from Quincey to Mina Harker (Stoker 305) – firmly establishes Ethan-as-Romantic-hero over Ethan-as-cowboy: surrounded by nature, Ethan rejects Vanessa’s fatalistic belief that her struggle will never with a rebellious statement of individualist strength (both hers and his, which is how they overcame her previous possession), but it is the following exchange that solidifies Ethan as a Romantic figure while again complicating his character:
Vanessa: You are one man.
Ethan: More than that, and you know it. We are not like others.
We have claws for a reason’ ( 2.07 “Little Scorpion”)
This exchange refers to the third archetype that Ethan embodies throughout Penny Dreadful, an archetype I have up to now ignored in my analysis: the werewolf. The revelation of Ethan-as-werewolf complicates my heretofore-argued position of Ethan as a Romantic hero playing the cowboy by adapting portions of both characterizations into a transformed hybrid narrative: we become aware of Ethan’s lycanthropy in the closing scenes of the first season, and this transformative moment hinges upon Ethan simultaneously inhabiting the cowboy and Romantic hero archetypes. As a cowboy, he is on the run from a pair of Pinkerton agents, but this Western narrative is given a Romantic bent, as Ethan is hunted for a Gothic-seeming, deliberately obscured crime, the nature of which, and Ethan’s accompanying guilt for, necessitated his self-imposed exile in London. However, when cornered by the Pinkertons, Ethan responds with neither a cowboy’s gun-blazing defiance nor a Romantic hero’s fatalism: the bones shift under his skin, revealing a clawed, yellow-eyed wolf-man, who dismembers the Pinkerton agents and everyone else in the vicinity, as the camera tilts up to a mist-shrouded full moon (1.08, “Grand Guignol”).
Ethan-as-werewolf serves as an archetypal meeting point that brings his cowboy and Romantic hero elements into a cohesive whole: like the cowboy, the classical werewolf is a violent lone wanderer; like the Romantic hero, he is set apart from the rest of humanity due to a hidden sin or “curse” that causes anxiety, introspection, or a fatalistic belief in one’s own damnation, and all of these elements form a critical part of Ethan’s characterization (Gosling and Logan 20). Interestingly, Ethan-as-werewolf also emphasizes the connection to wildness, to nature as opposed to civilization, that is implicit in both the cowboy and Romantic hero, although this Logan only references this obliquely, such as in the visual framing of Ethan’s declaration to Vanessa, where they are situated in a natural arch of greenery ( 2.07, “Little Scorpion”).
However, the reveal of Ethan-as-werewolf, and its subsequent impact upon the other archetypes he performs in Penny Dreadful’s narrative, is more interesting if we examine how it makes Ethan an extension of John Logan’s “creative goal” for the series – exploring humanity through depictions of the monstrous (Gosling and Logan 15). If we examine Ethan’s hybrid characterisation through this lens, it becomes apparent that Ethan, like Vanessa, acts as a critique of the masculine ideologies that his cowboy- and Romantic hero-selves embody. As with Vanessa, Ethan’s ability to present this sort of gendered critique is entirely dependent upon his hybrid identity – both as a ‘bespoke’ echo of Penny Dreadful’s textual canon, but more importantly, as an extension of the Gothic abhuman.
Abhuman Humanity – Ethan as Wolf-Man
The abhuman is an almost omnipresent Gothic entity, apparent in texts as far back as Frankenstein, but was formally defined by Hurley (1996 3-4) as “a not-quite human subject, characterised by its morphic variability, continually in danger of becoming not itself, becoming [O]ther”; a liminal body that exists between disparate states such as living and dead, human and animal, or between binary expressions of gender (Hurley 2012 190). Arguably, both Ethan and Vanessa exemplify this condition of being: Vanessa due to her connection to the spiritual world, “masculine” (i.e active and dominant) expressions of sexuality, and the physical and emotional exertions that accompany possession; Ethan due to his lycanthropy and the associated loss of emotional and bodily control that results in a violent physical metamorphosis.
The physical and emotional transformations that the abhuman state enacts causes the traditional Gothic narrative to cast it as the ‘ruination of the human subject’ and, by that token, a powerful source of horror – Frankenstein’s Creature or Mr. Hyde, for instance, are presented as repugnant figures that parasitically consume and ultimately destroy their human counterparts (Hurley 1996 3). The abhuman is terrifying for the ways it is not human, rather than identifiable for the ways it is. However, in a later analysis, Hurley notes that the abhuman, if presented sympathetically, allows Gothic narratives to ‘critique the cultural norms which the monster violates’, emphasizing the human aspect of the abhuman to effect social commentary (2012 198). Penny Dreadful’s depictions of the abhuman serve the latter purpose, in order to perform “a reframing of the monster narrative…onto the feelings of the outcasts rather than the majority” that critiques normative ideas of identity, sex, and gender (Thomas).
While Vanessa and Lily carry the gender critique of the series, and Frankenstein’s Creature interrogates general notions of the outsider, Ethan-as-abhuman acts as a critique of heteronormative (traditionally “manly”) conceptions of masculinity and patrilineal inheritance, which have been present in the Gothic since its inception (Brinks 11). Brinks raises the intriguing question: “if a male subject can be inhabited, displaced, or self-alienated, even temporarily, by uncanny forces that unleash, precipitate, or coincide with effeminzing effects, in what sense does he possess a masculine identity?” (12) This query is directly applicable to Ethan: his abhuman identity displaces and transforms the masculine identities he embodies as cowboy and Romantic hero. This liminal identity and its accompanying physiological metamorphosis causes Ethan to lose his ‘“volition” and rationality, qualities which are traditionally the special prerogative of the masculine subject”; Ethan-as-werewolf is “Thing” rather than man, “a mere body without self-identity or violition” beyond carnal desire, making him (by Victorian standards, at least) an “imperfect” or feminized male subject – a fact John Logan and actor Josh Hartnett confirm in a public interview, where Ethan’s lycanthropy was metaphorically linked to the menstrual cycle and described as being rooted in “emotional” (i.e. feminine) rather than physical (masculine) power (Hurley 1996 144-5; Wightman). This metaphoric conflation solidifies Ethan-as-abhuman as an example of ‘failed’ Gothic masculinity, which is explored in various ways through the series’ interwoven narrative strands (Brinks 11-2; Hurley 1996 144-5).
Throughout the first season, as the audience is given hints to Ethan’s abhuman identity, they coincide with moments where he embodies non-traditional (i.e. emotionally-driven and community-oriented) masculinity: Ethan first demonstrates his power through preternatural communion with a pack of wolves at London Zoo; later, his repressed memories of his lycanthropy prompt a homosexual encounter with Dorian Gray; most tellingly, his ‘official’ revelation as a werewolf in the first season finale is rooted in his grief for a lost loved one ( 1.03, “Resurrection”, 1.04, “Demimonde”, 1.08, “Grand Guignol”). This coincidence continues throughout the second season as Ethan’s lycanthropy becomes more apparent. Rather than a physical protector, he acts as an emotional support to Vanessa, and is emasculated by her when confronting the supernatural threats of that season: it is Vanessa’s knowledge of the Verbis Diablo and its occult power that enables her to drive away witches, enact revenge on Sir Geoffrey Hawkes, and ultimately overcome Evelyn Poole, the season’s antagonist ( 2.01, “Fresh Hell”, 2.07, “Little Scorpion”, 2.10, “And They Were Enemies”). In all of these instances, Ethan’s abhuman power is ancillary to Vanessa’s own abhuman state, and the associated ‘inappropriately aggressive femininity [that requires] as object an effeminized version of masculinity’ to offset it, which Ethan (and arguably, most of the male cast) provides (Hurley 1996 143).
Ethan’s seemingly inverted masculinity enables the series to portray social fears of individual or social degeneration evident in fin-de-siècle Gothic texts, which reviewers claim is echoed in contemporary Gothic media’s preoccupation with notions of monstrous identity and gendered domestic insecurity (Sarner; Buzzwell; Valentine). The werewolf figures as a key symbol that both the Victorian and contemporary Gothics use to negotiate these concerns, and understanding how this symbolism (especially surrounding gender) has persisted and altered from the Victorian to the contemporary Gothic will help formalise Ethan’s situation as part of Penny Dreadful’s gender commentary.
Victorian depictions of the werewolf, and more generally of the abhuman/monstrous body, were based around a process of “identity formation by negative definition” that involved juxtaposing the Anglo middle-class male (the de facto Victorian example of a ‘stable’ human identity) against an abhuman other, in a process that foreshadowed Kristeva’s theories of abjection (Coudray 2; Hurley 1996; Kristeva). The Victorian werewolf, as an extension of the abhuman, symbolized a ‘process of degeneration as imprinted in the psyche, and seeping outward to become imprinted on the body’, disrupting a stable self/Other binary through the hybridizing of human and animal, gradually giving rise to the figure of the bipedal wolf-man that Ethan becomes in Penny Dreadful (Coudray 12-4). The abhuman is a fundamentally changeling representation of its audience’s conception of the Other – sexual, national or otherwise; consequently, Victorian depictions of the werewolf operated fairly equally as a male or female archetype, as the werewolf’s metaphoric purpose was to act as a signifier of general difference, transgressive gender performance, or moral and physical disintegration (Six and Thompson 238-9; Coudray 6, 10, 12-4). Examining Ethan-as-werewolf in this light situates him as a “failed” or transgressive instance of the Victorian masculine figure, in keeping with Penny Dreadful’s textual roots, yet this reading is complicated when we overlay contemporary conceptions of the werewolf archetype onto this analysis. While the contemporary werewolf shares broad metaphoric similarities with its Victorian predecessor, humanised portrayals of lycanthropy in media such as Twilight (although this trend extends to the early 1990s, if not earlier) have re-symbolised and increasingly gendered the werewolf archetype. Contemporary depictions of lycanthropy portray it as almost exclusively masculine – to the point that female werewolves are “rare or aberrant” – and heterosexual: the werewolf’s abhumanity is now linked to “male aggression and [the] uncontrolled, unprovoked violence” that lies beneath masculine interaction and the male identity, with the wolf a pseudo-Jungian Shadow that must be dominated by the human male (McMahon-Coleman and Weaver 41-4). Alternatively, the contemporary werewolf acts as allegory for heterosexual adolescence: the (typically male) protagonist in a werewolf narrative is forced to “grow up” and achieve social, sexual, and/or emotional success through displays of supernatural dominance and self-determination, which has most recently been depicted in MTV’s adaptation of Teen Wolf (Pappademas; Schell 112-15).
With this reading in mind, Ethan-as-werewolf should re-align with the heteronormative masculinity implicit in the cowboy or Romantic hero archetypes he performs, yet as a werewolf/abhuman, Ethan is presented as an in- or subverted masculinity more in keeping with Victorian conceptions of the abhuman. Thus, Logan situates Ethan’s character as a deliberate critique of Victorian heteronormative masculinity, using the series’ historical setting and characterization to provide “a cultural criticism of the nineteenth century from the perspective of the twenty-first,” a relatively traditional means of discourse in historical fantasy that is more interesting for the ways that it in turn reflects upon twenty-first century conceptions of masculinity (Poore 73). The moments of inverted or “failed” masculinity that reveal Ethan’s lycanthropy in the first season should not be read as failings but rather as representations that develop an alternate, and arguably healthier, masculine identity, which in turn re-symbolises his abhuman shapeshifting as an opportunity “to step beyond or resist more stereotypical or traditional depictions of male-female roles [and] inhabit a new space” (McMahon-Coleman and Weaver 41). Ethan’s encounter with the wolf pack presents an idea of masculinity rooted in the fraternal and communal rather than ideas of individual dominance; his encounter with Dorian re-symbolises Penny Dreadful’s imagining of the werewolf as a metaphor for sexual fluidity, capable of expressing tenderness and intimacy as much as violence and aggression.
These transformative moments mean that by the time Ethan’s abhuman nature is fully realized at the end of the first season, John Logan was able to re-symbolise Ethan-as-werewolf as a masculine symbol–yes–but as a symbol of protectiveness, loyalty, and empathy, rather than a narrow caricature of violent dominance. Ethan-as-abhuman is not made less masculine by his abhumanity, but rather uses it throughout the series as a source of strength to overcome the demons that plague him, be that supernaturally or emotionally. Part of this re-symbolisation arises from Penny Dreadful’s relationship with its source material – its generic rather than specific relation to its precursor texts means that Gothic archetypes such as the werewolf can be examined from an alternate perspective. It is worth noting, that at least in Ethan’s case, the word ‘werewolf’ is never used to describe him in-narrative: his lycanthropic state is either described as “the wolf,” or more specifically as Lupus Dei (lit. “Wolf of God”) – a supernatural protector, whose identity in Penny Dreadful’s narrative cosmology is built around the altered masculine ideology Ethan-as-werewolf espouses ( “Fresh Hell”, 2.07, “Little Scorpion”, 2.09, “And Hell Itself My Only Foe”). This process is key to understanding Penny Dreadful’s success in transforming the Gothic: it re-creates its predecessors in a way that destabilizes the preconceptions and ideologies attached to them. Despite presenting us seemingly familiar Gothic characters in a familiarly Gothic space, Penny Dreadful, rather than retreading a well-worn path, disrupts and re-shapes his ‘bespoke’ characters in a way that forces audiences to re-examine them and their relationships to their predecessors, and give some thought to what exactly is so ‘monstrous’ about these terrifying figures.
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Bio: Tobias Locke (b. 1995) is a current doctoral candidate at Griffith University’s School of Humanities, specializing in contemporary and Neo-Victorian Gothic fiction. He blames Penny Dreadful for this, and looks forward to enacting revenge by writing extensively about it. This is his first publication.