Skepticism is a key theme we observed over the progression of this term in our course in many of the ghost stories that we have analyzed. In its definition, skepticism is the opinion that real knowledge of any kind is unattainable. (OED) This definition explains that skeptics believe that knowledge of a certain opinion is impossible to obtain because there is no knowledgeable explanation to support its claim. In terms of our course material, skepticism subverts the idea that there is a supernatural reality outside of the supernatural means. This theme suggests that the supernatural cannot be deemed true because there is no rationalized explanation to the claim of the encounters with spirits. ‘A condition of our survival,’ Levine writes, ‘is not knowing. A condition of our moral being is an effort to know’. (p. 250) (Buckland) This quote rebuttal’s Victorian England at this time as it was set to the advancements and truth of what could be explained through science and less to what cannot be explained through tangible research. It suggests that science was the truth, and the legitimate claim that spirits were real was nothing more than nonsense to those who believed in science and its tangible evidence.
Todorov’s Notion of the Fantastic and Theory of the Uncanny presents itself well amongst the theme of Skepticism. This is because The Uncanny allows for a reading of characters who have to decide the nature of their experience, and either the ghostly figure has a rational or natural explanation, what appears to be a ghost can successfully be explained away through a law of nature. (Paolucci 3:00) In short stories like, Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol, Amelia Edwards The Phantom Coach, and Mary E. Braddon’s At Chrighton Abbey we can see the theory of Uncanny working itself through characters who are skeptics of the supernatural. This can be presented as their skepticism allowing them to either stay or move within the contents of Todorov’s theory. It allows the reader to connect scepticism as a form of the traditional values of the time, and work through the movement of one’s skeptical mindset towards one that accepts the answer of not everything can be explained by science or rationality.
Charles Dicken’s is one of the authors we have covered this semester who uses skepticism in his work. Critics argue that Dickens oscillated between faith in the existence of the other-worldly and skepticism. Always concerned with the psychological aspect of the supernatural, Dickens’ work shows a constant engagement with the eerie, the uncanny and the grotesque (Chakraborty. Moodle) This point can be argued within texts like A Christmas Carol, as Dickens uses a phycological approach when he presents the spirits of Past, Present and Future to Scrooge. Scrooge from the beginning of his encounter with spirits argues that he does not believe that the spirits are actually real, his first encounter is with his partner Marley.
The narrator begins the story by saying that “Marley is dead” (Dickens 9) and this assumption is likely to tip the fact that Marley is not human, and if his appearance is real, it is of the supernatural. “Scrooge is in need of moral reform as he has become driven by money and has lost sight of human values… Marley’s ghost represents the repressed conscience of the bourgeoisie made conscious, and the three ghosts’ purpose is to show Scrooge the error of his ways.” (Dhindsa Moodle.) This is a key representation of the theme of skepticism because here we have a man who from the beginning shows such a cold reception to the idea of anything that is not fact and it is a story that moves between the theory of the Fantastic as Scrooge is moving his feeling’s from the Uncanny as a Sceptic to the Fantastic, this allows development for him and for the reader so that there is understanding of Skepticism in these characters who believe in and need tangible things to agree that Ghosts are real.
With all the information of his death and funeral given to the reader within the first few pages of the story, comes Marley’s appearance to Scrooge is at his home approximately seven years after his death. Scrooge is already presented as a very angry man, a man of numbers, so his reaction to what he sees when Marley comes to him is as one would expect, a complete shock, Marley comes to Scrooge literally wearing the chains he carries from his life, he comes described exactly as he was known in life, making Marley more visually an apparition. Scrooge says out loud to himself “It’s humbug still!’ said Scrooge. ‘I won’t believe it.’ (Dickens 21). Marley’s ghost represents the repressed conscience of the bourgeoisie made conscious, and the three ghosts’ purpose is to show Scrooge the error of his ways. (Dhindsa Moodle) This is all true, although I argue that Scrooge’s initial reaction of the ghost is repressing the truth of the supernatural as well. Rationally, in the terms of the Uncanny, would describe Scrooge’s encounter as possibly interpreted as a hallucination from the meal he ate just a little while before he went home for bed. This would suggest that maybe he got food poisoning and the sickness is what caused him to dream up in his subconscious the fears that live there, as Scrooge’s past was not always as present. This reasonable explanation would be a rationalization of the Uncanny (Todorov) in this story as Scrooge himself is moved by his revelations.
Scrooge, like many of the educated men we have studied present a reflection of knowing his truth and his truth is his humbug attitude that believes in numbers and the logistics of true fact. To Scrooge, a man who is determined to believe he is logical, that ghosts cannot be real, they present their scepticism as a projection of their repressed conscience, as my classmate presented. Scrooge initially rejects and represses what the spirit represents because Marley is showing Scrooge everything that will happen in his life, everything that has happened leading up to this encounter, and the present moment, through the visitation of the other ghosts. This is to encourage him to stop and mend his way of thinking and working as repressing the truth of what is coming from the spirit of Marley will have a negative impact on his life. This ghost story comes with a moral obligation, as Scrooge embodied Victorian ignorance, and if he does not change the error of his ways, he will live amongst the same fate in his death.
It is only one by one as the spirits visit that Scrooge becomes more open to the spirits, he breaks down the skepticism and believes that the ghosts are then to his appearance real for him, which is a mark of the Fantastic (Todorov). Scrooge’s opportunity to change his fate is presented from Marley as a representation of society changing the way they think and their social structure in relation to the way they act in response to the legitimacy of ghosts. This story revises the term skeptic at its end as Scrooge is confronted with his past, present and future, only then is he able to completely take a look externally at everything he has done, and will do, and come to the conclusion that the life he is living is a torment, Scrooge can finally put his greed behind him and he comes to the conclusion that the ghosts are real in the end, situating the story amongst the Fantastic, as he does believe the spirits are there but the only explanation the reader is given as to their appearance could be the meal that was Scrooge ate to bring on their relationship to him through his subconscious.
In my previous analysis of short story of Amelia Edwards’ The Phantom Coach for my seminar essay, I articulated that the narrative presents a story of a narrator who comes across the home of an ambiguous host who leaves the reader and himself with a claim to his hosts identity. Is his host a ghost or is he not a ghost? He inquires this question within the moments that they sit down together for dinner. The host disputes that ““The world,” he said, “grows hourly more sceptical…our men of science foster the fatal tendency…fable all that resist experiment”. (Edwards 5) The host says the world condemns what they cannot see and that, that cannot be predicted by an experiment or dissected in a lab. It presents the idea that anything that isn’t provable, science rejects. This was a very prominent issues amongst those who believed in spirits and is still a modern-day issue because science is a tangible answer for people who would rather see, than just believe. An example of this would be bringing into question the belief of religion as well, as people do not always see the Christian God they believe in, but they know he exists and he is there spiritually, atheist’s (sceptics) would say otherwise. This text directly discusses skepticism through the host’s story of his life, as the host suggests that there outside world has alienated him for 23 years in his belief of the supernatural, and the belief that the world has more to its parts than what science can prove. The host presents his experiences very harshly, and that not only presents him as very ghostly, but it suggests his personal stake in the reasons why he would want Murray to believe that science has demystified and made a skeptic out of all the important men in the world.
One of my classmates proposed in my response that, the old host, though clearly an educated and philosophical man is a spirit in himself as I have also suggested. This isn’t pointed out explicitly but it’s very much alluded to…his character of the ghost of a dying Victorian era. He warns Murray that society, more and more, is so quick to dismiss the existence of an ethereal realm, which apparently wasn’t the case back when he (the host) was alive. That no matter how the world might persist with science and philosophy like he wanted to, there does exist another realm. (Cacella)
My argument begins when Murray first meets Jacob, his hosts guide. He indicates that he is looking for someone to guide him home, and from there he meets with a “wavering speck of light coming out of the dark”, (Edwards 2) and although this suggests that Jacob was just holding a lantern, wavering specks of light are usually explained as viewing an orb when you see a ghost or spirit. This observation would fall under the Uncanny because there is a reasonable explanation that could be explained as to why we do we see the wavering speck of light, which is the lantern.
The doctor, who himself is a scientist, proves that this is a mystical story that science cannot determine to be true, and this is responded with an argument on how scepticism in accordance with science presents a demystification of the world because there is no believing what cannot be proven. Murray believes his truth but that does not dismiss the fact that that science is the basis of a lot of the information that is countered important in the Victorian era. This story critiques skepticism through the basis of scientific hold during the Victorian period.
A lot of what skepticism does in Victorian Ghost stories, is that it presents itself as a form of resistance against the given truth of the social culture. The fact Murray has a big strong drink when he ventures into the cold also suggests that he is possibly not in the best mindset, suggesting he might not be in a completely conscious state when he leaves the hosts home. This presents a fact presented by culture that there is reasoning behind the way that Murray could have encountered these spirits, for science has this reasonable explanation ready because there is no tangible evidence of experience left for one to comment on the validity of his story. Murray could very possibly just have been drunk, or his concussion could have just hurt him enough that what he believes he saw, was nothing more than a state of delusion according to the doctor. Even Murray says it himself, he has told the story to only one person, his doctor, who practices science. This validates sciences argument as being superior because the doctor (science) automatically rejects what he has to say. Therefore, they argue over his experiences for a while but Murray states at the end very firmly that he knew he was the fourth passenger in the Phantom Coach that night. (Edwards 11) The stories conclusion seems to land itself amongst the Uncanny (Todorov), because it does find the answers for the explanations of the ghost, but our narrator does not agree, giving the story the ambiguous ending. I believe this closing paragraph is very important to the theme of scepticism because it informs the reader that the short story at war with this theme, or essentially at war with itself.
The story is at war with itself because it leaves the reader with a sceptical message that science has ruined supernaturalism for everyone. This is because science is experimental tested fact, everyone is now skeptical of the belief of supernatural entities. The story uses scepticism to retort science as the bad guy in this case, and the people who argue against what science puts forth are considered delusional in the case of the scientist.
The story of At Chrighton Abby by Mary E. Braddon is the final short story I would like to analyze. This story covers scepticism of spirits again from the main protagonist, like previously seen in Dickens A Christmas Carol. Sarah, the main character of this short story is a skeptic of spirits, she is also the only person within the means of the short story who can see or encounter the spirits. Within her interaction, she sees the figures that fill the yard are dressed head-to-toe in hunting gear in preparation for what seems to be a hunt. The scene is questionable to the narrator – how could a vacant area fill up so quickly? When the company of men depart through the gate, Sarah notes that “there was nothing supernatural in the manner of their disappearance” (178). (Madden Moodle) Sarah does not believe that what she saw was a supernatural encounter because they did not leave as one would assume a ghost would, throughout disappearing. Instead the scene as she says was “natural enough” (Braddon 11) to human experience, she remains calm, and mentions that although she does not believe the experience seems to have left a marker on her as she trembled once it was empty.
Sarah is reluctant to believe such a thing, though, as she tells the housekeeper “I cannot believe these things…I cannot believe them” (181). (Madden Moodle) Sarah’s skepticism toward the idea, though, and the explanation made by the housekeeper, allows the story to fall under Todorov’s Uncanny. Todorov’s theory of the Uncanny (Todorov) is the unknown of not having a real explanation when there is a supernatural encounter. This is true of Sarah’s experience, and although Mrs. Marjorum offers an explanation to the peculiar gathering of hunters outside of the Abbey, it does not give a rational explanation as to how or why they appear, only that their presence is followed by a death. It could be coincidental, as Sarah says: “an awful coincidence” (181). (Madden Moodle)
In my opinion this scene particularly represents skepticism and the Uncanny (Todorov) because Mrs. Marjoram’s explanation of the rationalization of her seeing the spirits only allows Sarah to continue to believe what she saw as coincidental, therefore allowing her experiences to still be and feel superstitious and skeptical to her. Her skepticism and inability to understand that what she saw was the dead makes it inexplicably supernatural. (Braddon 3) Sarah uses saying that the situation might be strange but explainable, this line leads a little into the Fantastic as she does explain that the situation is little less than ideal, but she is a rational person, so she chooses to rationalize what she sees. Sarah’s ability to reason is what keeps her from believing throughout the whole story.
Sarah ultimately uses her skeptic mindset, like Scrooge, to repress the way she feels inside, she chooses not to let anything outside of logical reasoning define her experiences.
Sarah is much like Murray in the fact she is the only one who sees the ghosts. These two are the only characters who can verify the legitimacy of their stories. This also makes the stories themselves a work of speculation or skepticism because how can you trust someone who has only encountered this experience themselves? Even if, in Sarah’s case they argue that there is are explainable reasons for these supernatural events that occur to them. I argue that these three stories interconnect in experience because they offer characters whom represent skepticism through a repression either within themselves or externally from what society deems as the truth, like science. I find Sarah personally to be quite thought-provoking in regard to the other two protagonists’ because she does not allow herself to believe, she distinctly focalizes her thoughts and stays amongst one corner of the theory of the Fantastic which I have discussed.
I also find useful argument in Mary Shelly’s skeptic article, On Ghosts, when reading these kinds of texts. Shelly says ”Yes is it true that we do not believe in ghosts? There used to be several traditionary tales repeated, with their authorities, enough to stagger us when we consigned them to that place where that is which ‘is as though it had never been.’ (Shelly)
Shelly discusses the exact argument of skepticism by suggesting in this quote that people do not believe in ghosts because spirits come from a place as though it have never been as she says it, this meaning a place that humans cannot quite comprehend that is exterior and outside the resources of what we know. This makes the argument that science can only go so far, and because ghosts exist beyond the outside spaces of our realm it is up to the discretion of the person to argue whether they choose to believe in spirits or not. This allows for the decision to be more personal rather than placing it on scientific fact, everyone might not agree that ghosts exist, and I make argument that there will always be people skeptical on the legitimacy of ghosts. Although this does not stop those who do believe in them. Characters like Scrooge, Murray and Sarah offer an understanding that everyone stands different as a skeptic, and their choices give example to this.
To conclude, I have presented through the three short stories of Dickens, Edwards and Braddon, that we have discussed over the course of the term on how the theme of Skepticism interweaves itself between all three of these texts. I have suggested that skepticism was very prevalently noted within Victorian culture and as a theme suggests that the supernatural cannot be deemed true because there is no rationalized explanation to the claim of the encounters with spirits. These skeptics engage with the power of science, and the knowledgeable truth that comes from comes from experiments. Science is a logical answer, and when it comes to spirits, people want logical answers instead of believing in something that they cannot physically see for themselves or understand on their own. This is presented as so throughout these stories, as each one presents a casefile argument in terms of the skepticism these characters partake in when they see and encounter these ghosts. Todorov’s theory lends well to the theme of skepticism because we can see the theory of Uncanny working itself through the characters who are skeptics of the supernatural. The stories conclude themselves and offer ways to read them as either natural, scientific reasoning or as supernatural occurrences. I argue personally, like the host from The Phantom Coach, science truly does the world a disservice by asking it to ignore the idea of the supernatural. The supernatural accounts for the imaginative mindset, in the sense that it allows people to believe not always in the things that are tangible as the truth.
Scrooge himself concludes his story by shifting his mindset on ghosts, and the ghosts that he encounters are the reason he attributes himself being a changed man by the end of A Christmas Carol. Scrooge presents the argument for not every spiritual encounter will end up negatively transcribed. I believe that is what scares a lot of people about believing in ghosts is that, there are almost always negative typecasts placing ghosts as evil and horror filled and sometimes that is not always the case, spiritual visits were just what he needed to get his mind back on track and back in line for a healthier life in his case. Sarah in Chrighton Abby does quite opposite in her encounter, by choosing to argue that ghosts are not real and what she saw can be rationally described, which is what she felt was right for her. In the end, science seems to be winning this long debate in both statement from these stories and in modern day theology. These stories allow for us to come to our own conclusion on whether we would rather choose rational thinking or believe in the mystification of the world.