Michael Wainwright, Literature, Parasitism, and Science: The Untold Worms of Stoker, Stevenson, and Doyle

Michael Wainwright, Literature, Parasitism, and Science: The Untold Worms of Stoker, Stevenson, and Doyle (Cambrige: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2022) 335 pp. £72.99 Hb. ISBN: 978-1-5275-8355-9

Framing his argument in the context of parasitology as a ‘contested discourse’ (x) both in scientific and social circles of nineteenth-century Britain, Michael Wainwright traces the emergence of parasitological imagery and discourse in the works of Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Arthur Conan Doyle. Wainwright draws on Freudian psychoanalysis, cultural anthropology, and biography as well as primary medical and scientific documents. Wainwright’s argument appears to be three-fold: (1) to rescue parasitology as a relevant scientific context; (2) to trace the sources of the worm-like imagery and discourse of Stoker, Stevenson, and Doyle to their early experience with bodily infiltration of worms of various types; and (3) to demonstrate that worms challenge the primacy of the human. He writes, ‘The present volume breaks that silence in linking late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature with contemporary parasitological studies. This sustained process unmasks hidden, but telling literary delineations of invermination in the works of three authors environed by and alerted to the parasitic’ (xx-xxi). The work seeks further to ‘chart the evolving scientific context of the authors’ time in a prolonged meditation that brings forward enough evidence, both historical and textual, to identify, trace, and analyze the parasitic stimulation and penetration of fictional production’ (xxii).

Using Charles Darwin as an example of the scientific reticence surrounding parasitology during the nineteenth century and Mary Douglas’s research on cultural taboos, Wainwright explains that one reason parasitology and invermination were ignored at the time (and continue to be in the scholarship) is because worms, such as helminths and other parasites that live inside the host (entozoan), challenge human dominance and centrality and, by extension in this argument, ‘the structures and creations of the artistic imagination’ (xvi). If the human is the host for the parasite, then the human is the helper to the parasite, an inversion that topples the dominant anthropocentric paradigm.

The work is broken into three parts, each focused on one author. Part I examines Stoker’s canon in the context of the parasitic taboo. Wainwright establishes the ubiquitous presence of worms in Irish life through the contexts of the cholera epidemic, the potato famine, and public health concerns. Stoker’s childhood illness often made him bedridden later in life, and being bedridden left the door open for infestation by parasites. Wainwright suggests that these infestations necessarily led to ‘the most frightful dreams’ (32), which can be interpreted, using psychoanalysis, as reflections of repressed fears of the vermicular. Wainwright argues that Stoker’s imaginative products reflect the physiological and psychological processes associated with invermination: ‘the maturing Stoker translated provocative aspects of physiological imaging into a discursive proficiency that filled the void left by the taboo on his childhood illness’ (34). Wainwright traces the presence of worms in the Stokerian canon – everything from the wormy bog of The Snake’s Pass to the helminthic invasion of a particular word (‘helmin’ in Wilhelmina of Dracula) – arguing ultimately that these imaginative products are part of a ‘cleansing mission’ (39).

Part II makes a similar argument about Robert Louis Stevenson with a much heavier reliance on Freudian dream theory to make Wainwright’s case. In this section, Wainwright brings together parasitology and the emerging science of psychoanalysis to argue that ‘their discursive confluence recognizes the human para-site and its inner frailties’ (xxiii). Stevenson’s work reflects not only his own physical and psychological experiences with invermination, but also the ‘strained relations between Scotland and England [figured as a parasite/host relationship] and the discursive schism over the (un)wholesomeness of parasitology’ (135). Stevenson’s work reflects the repressed thoughts, reinforced by cultural taboos, that had emerged in the worm-induced dreams that he experienced during his various illnesses. The following are a few examples of invermination in Stevenson’s canon. Clearly, Mr Hyde and Dr Jekyll have a parasite/host relationship, but more than that, Hyde’s hiding places are interpreted as representative of the problem of infestation in large cities, a public health issue discussed by the parasitologist Thomas Cobbold (1828-86). The Brownies of ‘A Chapter on Dreams’ are certainly ‘vermicular manifestations’ (80). In another, particularly compelling example, Wainwright suggests that Stevenson’s Brownies and his haunting by the color ‘brown’ (as discussed in ‘A Chapter on Dreams’) are reflective of what the tapeworm does in the body: digest matter into the ‘progressively fecal’ (106). Interpreted through Freudian psychoanalysis, the presence of the vermicular in Stevenson’s canon, particularly Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, is a ‘wish-fulfillment, an anthelmintic dreamscape that struggles to rid its bearer of parasitosis’ (93). In the case of both Stoker and Stevenson, the parasitic contexts, both personal and cultural, are set up as sources for their imaginative products, which, in turn, become implicated in a kind of cleansing process.

Part III turns to Arthur Conan Doyle whose experience of invermination is specifically related to syphilis. Wainwright reads the ‘coded references to syphilis’ in Doyle’s Holmes stories and ‘explicit references’ in the 1894 story ‘The Third Generation’, suggesting that his father’s ill health was due to syphilis rather than alcoholism, which has been the scholarly interpretation thus far (xxiii). Unlike Stoker and Stevenson, Doyle did not directly experience the ill health of invermination; his father’s potentially syphilitic condition, however, Wainwright argues, is a source for Doyle’s apparent ‘obsessive interest’ in the condition (197). Similar to Stoker’s and Stevenson’s situation, the cultural taboo against discussions of parasites, in this case the syphilitic variety, contributed to its expression in Doyle’s imaginative products. In one example, Jefferson Hope, the murderer in Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, Wainwright argues, probably suffers from syphilis. In another example, Wainwright reads ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’ as a story about syphilitic infection. The final chapter in this section explores other coded references to syphilis in Doyle’s canon and indicates that Doyle remained obsessed with the condition as he aged.

The strengths of this study include its commitment to extensive primary research in parasitology, the biographical details of the authors’ lives, and attention to the other relevant historical contexts. The discussions (in various places) of Freudian dream work are also strong. The part of the argument that links the physiological experience of invermination with the imaginative products of the sufferers is certainly a good psychoanalytic reading as is the context of cultural taboo that reinforces both cultural and individual repression. Wainwright could have made a more compelling case, however, if he had organized the argument more clearly and added more signposting along the way. With the exception of the section on Doyle, there is not quite enough sustained analysis of the fiction and what parasitology helps us to see that we did not see before. There could be more discussion of the existing scholarly discourse on these topics (even if only in broad strokes) and then an assertion of how parasitology helps us to interpret the fiction differently. The Doyle section does a much better job of this, but even still, we are left with the idea that Doyle was obsessed with syphilis because his father may have had it. Even if the primary argument is basically a psychoanalytic reading of the authors, the overall structure is problematic partly because there is little signposting and a lot of set up and sustained summaries of primary medical works often without clear transitions. The book does some of what it sets out to do: break the silence on parasitology and ‘chart the evolving scientific context’ (xxii), but I do not see enough analysis leading to ‘telling literary delineations’ (xx). What is ‘telling’ about them? How do we interpret these works differently now that we know more about their parasitological contexts? I think Wainwright is suggesting what he noted briefly in the early chapters – that worms challenge the dominant narrative of human beings as superior creatures – but that idea is not carried throughout. Despite these questions, this book is certainly worth reading because there is no doubt that the authors in question were influenced by their personal experiences with worms and that parasites appear in these works in various guises.

Diana Pérez Edelman, University of North Georgia