Drugs and Monsters: Difference and Deviance in Nineteenth-Century Literature

A Nineteenth-Century Opium Den, 1874. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Drugs and the monsters they created haunted the British imagination in the Nineteenth century.  This upper-division literature course provides students with an interdisciplinary framework for analyzing drugs and monsters in nineteenth-century British fiction as figures for transgressions of nature, science, race, gender, sexuality, space, place, and the body. Both drugs and monsters are tropes for deviations from the “normal” as it was constructed in nineteenth-century British society. We will analyze the circulation of both drugs and monsters in this context, thinking about the ways in which monsters resonate with broader cultural anxieties about criminal deviance, psychiatric disorder, and homosexuality. In addition, we will consider the ways in which these tropes can reinforce or subvert culturally constructed classification systems (e.g., normal/deviant, natural/supernatural, human/beast).  Among the authors we will consider are Mary Shelley, Thomas De Quincey, Emily Brontë, Christina Rossetti, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Oscar Wilde. 

Students will develop close reading, analytic writing, and critical thinking skills over the course of the semester by working with texts and reflecting on them in three essays and one final paper. This course emphasizes major elements of academic style in ways that ask students explicitly to refine their understanding and practice of these conventions. 

“Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.”

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

Theodore von Holst from the frontispiece of Frankenstein 1831. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Critical Thinking

Students practice critical thinking skills by analyzing their preconceived definitions of monstrosity and respond in writing to the ways nineteenth-century texts contribute to these modern definitions.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Historical Context

Students learn how British empire contributed to the rise of Orientalism and fantasies of the Far East. By analyzing texts like The Mystery of Edwin Drood through this historical trend, students understand that shifting ideas about race and nationality contribute to discourses of monstrosity.

Punch Cartoon 1897, Source: Wikimedia Commons

Close Reading

Students use close textual analysis to gather evidence that supports their arguments in a series of recursive revision assignments, including a close reading paper, a revision that relates the close reading paper to historical contexts, and a final paper that situations the arguments in relation to literary criticism.

Learning Objectives

  1. Develop close reading and analysis skills 
  2. Make original claims about texts through close reading and analysis
  3. Learn to explain and situate literary critical arguments alongside original claims
  4. Explain the historical context for arguments, texts, and the major literary movements
  5. Identify and write within the conventions of academic style
  6. Work respectfully and collaboratively with other students in writing, reading, and class discussion

Required Texts

De Quincey, Thomas. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.  Ed. Joel Faflak.  Broadview Editions: NY, 2009. 

Dickens, Charles. The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Dover Thrift Editions.  Dover Publications:  NY, 2005.

Rossetti, Christina. Goblin Market and other poems.  Dover Thrift Editions. Dover Publications: NY, 1994. (poems on reserve).

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. ed. Joanna M. Smith. Bedford/St. Martins: NY, 2000. 


Stevenson, Robert Louis.  The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Dover Thrift Editions.   Dover Publications: NY, 1991.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Ed. Joseph Bristow. Oxford World Classics. Oxford   University Press: UK, 2006.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Ed. John Paul Riquelme. 2nd Edition. Bedford St. Martin’s: NY, 2016.