The Victorian era established several relationships and social classes among the population that determined a person’s humanity. Despite Enlightenment advances in science and studies of human and animal nature, lower classes were considered almost inhuman, more of a mechanical appendage to the factory machines than a human worker. Non-Europeans and women were considered to possess as much power as an animal, as white males believed non-Europeans could “evolve” into an Englishman, and a woman was about as cooperative as a dog.
Though the definition of humanity has been debated before, events such as the Industrial Revolution and Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species forced Victorians to redefine what it meant to be human through an animalistic and mechanical mode, a process that bled through to the literature of the time including Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet and Kipling’s The Jungle Book. The historical events of the Victorian era greatly influenced the previously understood relationship between humans, animals, and machines. Dominic Pettman, author of Human Error: Species-Being and Media Machines, refers to this series of connections as the “cybernetic triangle,…the unholy trinity of human, animal, and machine, including the various ways in which they have been figured and reconfigured, conceptually over time: sometimes spliced together, other times branching off into different directions”.i
While humans express a number of mechanical and animalistic traits in Victorian literature, there are also moments when the animals are given human and mechanical traits and machines are likened to human (and arguably animal) appendages. This conflict was recreated and further challenged within several Victorian texts as the authors debated whether “‘humanity’ was located in the eye of the beholder: a beholder who is beholden to ideas of his, her, or its own belonging— or exclusion— from this privileged set”.ii However, during this time the “beholder” was often a member of a higher class who determined others’ humanity, such as that of the Industrial Revolution’s factory worker, based on the jobs they performed.
In the late eighteenth century, England shifted from a rural and farming based culture to one powered by factories mass-producing goods for industries—such as textiles—with the Industrial Revolution. While this process produced cheaper goods, it also dehumanized workers within the factories, as “the dominance of machinery, manufacture, and the factory all contributed to the making of a radically altered and foreshortened notion of the human”.iii Workers were called “hands” to distance them from a complete human and became no more than an “appendage” of the machines as well: “Interested in the human-machine complex, Victorian thinkers did not find humanness and the body congruent. Instead, they questioned the position of a subject that is no longer, strictly speaking, a body but a prosthetic part”.iv A large portion of the working class was considered to be composed of human and mechanical characteristics. As the revolution progressed, these working “humanoids” were demoted further when machines were given human “appendages”:
As an extended prosthetic conglomeration, the machine not only surpasses its human host, it also threatens to supplant the human entirely. Making human workers superfluous the machine “performs with its tools the same operations as the worker formerly did with similar tools” (495). The worker is, in effect, stripped bare by his supplement. In turn, the machine acquires this worker’s former tools/organs, which are “converted from being the manual implements of a man into the parts of a mechanical apparatus of a machine” (499)v
The mechanical era represents one leg of the cybernetic triangle as human workers were further dehumanized by upper classes, who gradually assigned machines more humanity than the working class.
The dehumanization of Victorian workers became so widespread that it appeared in essay collections, such as Thomas Carlyle’s 1829 essay “Signs of the Times”. In this essay, Carlyle commented on the debate “between deep human feeling and shallow mechanical soullessness”.vi He noticed the growing connections between factory workers and machines as the Victorian culture expanded to “the Machine of Society”. This society expected workers to “adapt” to mechanical roles: “Considered merely as a metaphor, as is well enough; but here, as in so many other cases, the ‘foam hardens itself into a shell,’ and the shadow we gave wantonly evoked stands terrible before us, and will not depart at our bidding”.vii Here the “foam” represents the early and unsolidified comparisons between humans and machines, which eventually solidifies into a “shell” or acknowledged relationship that dehumanized hundreds of workers. Therefore the “Body-politic is more than ever worshipped and tended: But the Soul-politic less than ever”.viii Without a body to work, the lower classes would be worthless to both their employers and their own families. Without work at all, the lower classes could not survive in the Victorian era. The damages done to these workers’ souls from long hours and poor working conditions were disregarded as a necessity for the physical body to persist. Upper classes concerned themselves more with the body of a worker—the iron shell of a machine—than the soul within that established a worker’s humanity.
This passion for machinery and scientific knowledge grew out of theories of the Enlightenment, a period which also inspired a change in the relationship between humans and animals. People once believed themselves to be at the mercy of nature’s whim and therefore punished animals as humans, thus “awarding” animals the same rights and responsibilities humans possessed and at times resulting in an animal standing trial for a “crime” committed out of instinct or human mishandling.ix The Victorian era ended this form of punishment, which was praised as “the incipient triumph of ‘refined and humanitarian modern conceptions of justice’ over ‘gross and brutal medieval conceptions’”.x This signified that Victorians no longer feared the animals they once considered worthy of trial, and instead regained control over natural forces.xi While this stopped the cruelty of animals, it also provided Victorians a source with which to compare animals to humans, many of whom of the lower class.
As people appropriated the power they previously assigned to animals and nature, they began to associate powerless animals with powerless humans in the Victorian era, notably women and people of the lower classes. Once animals were stripped of all power assigned by humans, “wild animals, like the peasants and exotic foreigners with whom they were increasingly classed, might evoke sympathy rather than scorn”.xii In literature, animals were used to connect and justify several human concerns regarding the powerful natural world,xiii which led to several real-life associations between humans and animals. For instance, women were often viewed with the same “sexual proclivities” as a dog breeder’s uncooperative bitch that refused to mate with the selected male dog, which comments on both the perspective of women and rape culture within the Victorian eraxiv. Since women were virtually powerless in the Victorian era, they were considered no better than leashed dogs at a show, paraded around in expensive clothing with high collars. However, in the mid-1800s Darwin’s discoveries expanded this comparison to include every member of humanity instead of just the powerless.
In 1859 Charles Darwin published the Origin of Species, which discussed evolutionary patterns within humanity. This discovery produced a strong push to find a superiority factor within humanity that would place the species above animals, which led people to “declaim indefinitely about Intellect, Soul, Understanding, and Self-consciousness, and all other immanent qualities of mankind”.xv Victorians latched on to this idea of mental prowess and claimed human’s superiority was “an enlargement of the mental powers, leading to the accumulation of stores of knowledge utterly unattainable by brute creatures, proving in man a mental development in some sense differing in kind as well as in degree”.xvi Humankind could reason and conduct their lives through moral rights and wrongs, unlike animals that survived by instinctual means. Darwin’s evolutionary theories were also used to compare non-Europeans to animals as people believed that “if the transformation of species admitted, then the possibility of the origin of all human races from one pair must also be admitted; for if an amphibium sic can become a bird or a mammal, surely a negro can become a Mongol or a Caucasian”.xvii This superiority complex extended outside of natural animals as Victorians placed their fair skin and English nature above Africans, who were dehumanized nearly equivalent to the animals displayed in Kipling’s The Jungle Book.
The animals in The Jungle Book are given several human qualities that the Victorians used to express superiority over inferior creatures. For example, the novel humanizes the animals in the novel by identifying each group of animals as “people”: “‘For a wolf, no,’ said Tabaqui, ‘but for so mean a person as myself a dry bone is a good feast. Who are we, the Gidur-log the Jackal-People, to pick and choose’”.xviii Tabaqui calls himself a person within the first few pages of the book, which explicitly places him as a jackal at the same level as the readers as human beings. There is also constant mention of the Law of the Jungle, a strict set of rules that maintains control in the jungle like the laws humans obey to preserve order in society. Through this lawful organization, Kipling’s animals appear more refined and human than some of the lower classes, traits that continue through Mowgli’s lesser intelligence.
The Jungle Book challenges humanity’s claim to superior mental intellect when Kipling demonstrates Mowgli’s limited memory. Though Mowgli is a young boy and supposedly more intelligent and skillful than his animalistic counterparts, “a young wolf would have remembered that advice every hour, Mowgli forgot it because he was only a boy”.xix Though man is supposed to be able to store far more knowledge than animals, here we see Mowgli’s intelligence below that of the wolves. Humans are further demoted after harming the ‘Lone Wolf,’ who “had fallen twice into a wolf-trap in his youth, and once he had been beaten and left for dead; so he knew the manners and customs of men”.xx The Lone Wolf has not committed any crime such as those animals of the Enlightenment and therefore has no cause to be beaten such as this. (This kind of behavior may even be classified as unruly and animalistic.) Within Kipling’s jungle world, humankind behaves no better than the animals who display intellect, order, and choice.
The Jungle Book demonstrates choice, which normally separates humans from animals. The ability to choose allows humans to not rely purely on instincts such as animals and has led to the sophisticated environment we live in today. However, in The Jungle Book Shere Khan and Father Wolf argue over Mowgli’s fate in the jungle when Father Wolf declares, “The wolves are the free people… They take orders from the head of the pack, and not from any striped cattle-killer. The man’s cub is ours—to kill if we choose”,xxi to which Shere Khan responds, “Ye choose and ye do not choose! What talk is this of choosing”.xxii Choice is a human trait, arguably a similar humanity determinant as higher intelligence or the soul. Animals are not defined by the ability to choose, which is why punishing them as criminals before the Victorian era sounded ridiculous and cruel: their actions are driven by instincts while a human’s actions are driven by consequence (or the inability to predict or worry about such). The discussion of “choice” among these animals demonstrates the strong relationship between humans and animals within the cybernetic triangle, a relationship that becomes further complicated when man is given mechanical qualities.
Though Sherlock Holmes exhibits mechanical traits, he also acts like an animal in A Study in Scarlet. When Holmes first comes across the corpse at the beginning of the mystery, he pokes and prods at the body like an animal sniffing abandoned food: “As Holmes spoke, his nimble fingers were flying here, there, and everywhere, feeling, pressing, unbuttoning, examining…Finally, he sniffed the dead man’s lips, and then glanced at the soles of his patent leather boots”.xxiii Scavenging and carnivorous animals will smell a dead animal before carrying it off to consume, and while Holmes does not intend on eating the body in front of him, his mannerisms reflect that of a fox or dog coming across dead prey. Watson remarks on this similarity as well, as he observes Holmes during the investigation and “was irresistibly reminded of a pure-blooded well-trained foxhound as it dashes backwards and forwards through the covert, whining in its eagerness until it comes across the lost scent”.xxiv The mystery seems more like a hunt than investigative work where detectives are more akin to hunting dogs than humans tracking down a murderer. This thrill of the chase is depicted in Gregson’s account of finding the false murderer: “I began to smell a rat. You know the feeling, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, when you come upon the right scent—a kind of thrill in your nerves”.xxv This is an animalistic thrill that comes at the end of savagery, such as killing prey or having intercourse. Since Holmes does not explicitly represent a specific race or class, Doyle’s narrative implies that this human-animal relationship is not isolated to a group but includes most or all of the Victorian population.
While animals and humans share more obvious similarities than machines, animals rely on rote, almost mechanical, natural forces to survive: instinct. Animals act instinctively without thinking, forming what Victorians called an animal machine: “The concept is two-fold: on the one hand, it envisions machines as bestial and instinctive organisms; on the other hand, it refers to animal bodies fueled by powerful mechanical drives that reproduce the hydraulic energetics of steam”.xxvi The Victorians thought of animals as self-powered machines that relied on instincts to fuel animation, which differed from a human’s definition of “living”:
Let us then consider the source of that motion which springs from within the body; which, in better words, is evolved in the body; which gives animal power, but does not give intelligence; which makes the animal an engine, but not an animal; which is constructive and locomotive, but not animating; but which yet prepares the machine for animation, and without which there is no lifexxvii
This suggests that because animals are missing the intelligence and soul of a human, they are nothing more than machines with fur. However, there are other accounts that imply an animal does possess a soul and mechanical instincts, completing the cybernetic triangle.
The relationships expressed in the cybernetic triangle interact at different moments throughout the Victorian era, and sometimes all three points of the triangle interact at once. While humans claimed superiority over animals and machines because of the possession of the soul, there may be a deeper connection that ties humans, animals, and machines together. Victorians believed that the soul provided humans with the will of life and action but refused to believe animals could possess something similar, despite the actions animals performed.1 Charles Wake—who wrote a number of articles regarding the human-animal relationship during the Victorian era—believed that animals possessed the soul humans bragged about, creating an organism with characteristics of humans, animals, and machines.2 This idea was also expressed during Descartes and La Mettire’s era, a philosophy that became so popular in the Victorian era that a number of their books were reprinted: “Whereas Descartes separates the spiritual acts of thinking and feeling from the material processes of the beast-machine, La Mettrie claims that ‘man is but an animal made up of a number of springs…and the soul is only the first principle of motion’”.xxviii While humans may demonstrate a higher intellect and the ability to choose that animals and machines do not possess, humans are known to exhibit mechanical and animalistic drives that have come to define humanity both in and outside of fiction. These relationships can be seen in the rhetoric used in conversation to describe a person: Some people are described as “party animals,” which indicates they may act boisterously without regard for the consequences. If a person’s work method is described “like a machine,” we assume the person in question works tirelessly on an exact schedule that an average employee would never manage to maintain. While these are not strictly Victorian phrases, these quotes demonstrate just how blurred the lines can become between humans, animals, and machines.
This three-way relationship also appears within Victorian literature as humans, animals, and machines come together to challenge the previous notion of humanity. The Jungle Book shows Mowgli caught in between his animal family and fellow humans, though he is cast out of both groups because of the conflicting relationship between human and animal within him. Before this conflict surfaces, the narrator briefly mentions where Mowgli’s skill set originated: “Of course Mowgli, as a woodcutter’s child, inherited all sorts of instincts, and used to make little huts of fallen branches without thinking how he came to do it”.xxix Mowgli’s actions resemble that of a bird or squirrel grabbing twigs and scraps to build a nest, or a beaver building a dam in a river. Kipling explicitly states that these actions are not conscious, but rather rote, mechanical actions Mowgli completes without prior instructions. Along with possessing animal and human qualities, Mowgli is driven by mechanical instincts inherited from his family, such as building shelter from chopped wood.
Sherlock Holmes demonstrates a similar conflict. While Holmes is described with both animal and mechanical traits, the combination of qualities does not become apparent until Watson describes Holmes’s hands: “His hands were invariably blotted with ink and stained with chemicals, yet he was possessed of extraordinary delicacy of touch”.xxx The first observation notes how messy his hands are, clearly more human and animal than anything, but then Watson acknowledges the delicate touch Holmes uses when experimenting; this delicacy is more characteristic of machine than animal or human. Holmes and Mowgli’s humanity is thus a combination of human, animal, and machine qualities.
Animals and machines are both modes of humanity, modes that were not always recognized until the Victorian era. Human workers were treated like machines during the Industrial Revolution, completing rote actions as an appendage of a factory mechanism. Humans and animals converged at the end of the Enlightenment when Victorians no longer feared natural forces and attributed animalistic qualities to non-Europeans and women. After Darwin’s Origin of Species suggested all Victorians had animalistic ancestors, humans boasted of their intellect, soul, and choice to prove their superiority. Animals demonstrated instinctual reactions that were almost mechanical, at times completed without the animal’s knowledge. These three relationships combined into the cybernetic triangle, a network that demonstrates a redefined explanation of humanity that incorporates animalistic and mechanical features apparent in both Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet and Kipling’s The Jungle Book.
While this discussion was limited to the Victorian era, the growing number of modern dystopian narratives continues to blur the line between humans, animals, and machines. Some narratives present robots so lifelike we forget their mechanical insides, while others offer several interpretations regarding the human-animal conflicts within the werewolf lore, as well as technology that can translate an animal’s unintelligible growls. And though cybernetic triangle exists within a vast amount of literature produced, the fact that these lines continued to be blurred force us to reconsider how each era interprets the relationships between humans, animals, and machines.
Carlyle, Thomas. “Signs of the Times.” In Critical and Miscellaneous Essays II (1839): 143-71.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. “The Complete Sherlock Holmes Canon.” The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Last modified March 15, 2014. https://sherlock-holm.es/.
Ketabgian, Tamara Siroone. ““Human Parts and Prosthetic Networks”: The Victorian Factory and Mesmeric Forces.” In The Lives of Machines: The Industrial Imaginary in Victorian Literature and Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2011.
Ketabgian, Tamara Siroone. ““Melancholy Mad Elephants”: Affect and the Animal Machine in Hard Times.” In The Lives of Machines: The Industrial Imaginary in Victorian Literature and Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2011.
Kipling, Rudyard. The Jungle Book. New York: New American Library, 2005.
Pettman, Dominic. Human Error: Species-Being and Media Machines. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2011.
Philalethes. "The Distinction between Man and Animals." The Anthropological Review 2, no. 6 (1864): 153-63. JSTOR.
Richardson, Benjamin W. "On The Physics Of Disease, And The Physical Pathology Of The Blood." The British Medical Journal 1, no. 211 (1865): 35-37. JSTOR.
Ritvo, Harriet. The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.
Schaaffhausen, Hermann. "Darwinism and Anthropology." Journal of the Anthropological Society of London 6 (1868): Cviii-xviii. JSTOR.
Wake, Charles S. "The Relation of Man to the Inferior Forms of Animal Life." The Anthropological Review 1, no. 3 (1863): 365-73. JSTOR.
1 Machines, of course, cannot yet claim to possess a soul.
2 Victorian machines are not quite equal with animals and humans as they do not possess the will to decide action; however modern machines are getting closer to the human thought process, which may later redefine this definition once again.
i Dominic Pettman, Human Error: Species-Being and Media Machines (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2011), 5
ii Ibid, 7.
iii Tamara Siroone Ketabgian, ““Human Parts and Prosthetic Networks”: The Victorian Factory and Mesmeric Forces,” in The Lives of Machines: The Industrial Imaginary in Victorian Literature and Culture (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2011), 20.
iv Ibid, 18.
v Marx qtd. in Ketabgian “Human Parts”, 20.
vi Tamara Siroone Ketabgian. ““Melancholy Mad Elephants”: Affect and the Animal Machine in Hard Times,” in The Lives of Machines: The Industrial Imaginary in Victorian Literature and Culture (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2011), 53.
vii Thomas Carlyle, “Signs of the Times,” in Critical and Miscellaneous Essays II (1839): 154.
viii Ibid, 155.
ix Harriet Ritvo, The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), 1.
x Ibid, 2.
xi Ibid, 3.
xv Philalethes, "The Distinction between Man and Animals," The Anthropological Review 2, no. 6 (1864): 153.
xvi Charles S. Wake, "The Relation of Man to the Inferior Forms of Animal Life," The Anthropological Review 1, no. 3 (1863): 366.
xvii Hermann Schaaffhausen, "Darwinism and Anthropology," Journal of the Anthropological Society of London 6 (1868): cx.
xviii Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book (New York: New American Library, 2005), 6, bold added.
xix Ibid, 15.
xx Ibid, 11.
xxi Ibid, 9.
xxiii Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet, 15.
xxiv Ibid, 16.
xxv Ibid, 25.
xxvi Ketabgian, “Melancholy”, 49.
xxvii Benjamin W. Richardson, "On The Physics Of Disease, And The Physical Pathology Of The Blood," The British Medical Journal 1, no. 211 (1865): 35.
xxviii Ketabgian, “Melancholy”, 50.
xxix Kipling, The Jungle Book, 33.
xxx Doyle, A Study in Scarlet, 8.