Victorian Parasites

A blog about Parasites, Science, and Popular Culture

An extraordinary Instinct for the Horrible.

My research concerns things generally best not talked about at the dinner table (a resounding irony I will elaborate on later). From Trypanosomiasis to Ticks, parasites come in all forms but usually they’re unsavoury. At a recent paper I gave, concerning the figure of the parasite in contemporary popular culture, I was jocularly informed that my meagre warning that ‘there are some pretty gruesome pictures coming up’ was not warning enough.

John Ruskin writing in the nineteenth century has a very similar attitude toward parasites, he writes deprecatingly of ‘this extraordinary instinct for the horrible, developing itself at present in the English mind […] so that sensation must be got out of death, or darkness, or frightfulness.’ This instinct for the horrible describes a duality that often surrounds the literary parasite. Examples can be found in figures like Dracula who both mesmerises and disgusts his victims, or Miss Penclosa in Conan Doyle’s The Parasite, who causes Prof. Gilroy to act as if besotted, whilst internally sickened by the thought of her. Further examples can be found in Mr Hyde who both intrigues and frightens Dr Jekyll; even the tentacular Martians in H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds cultivate fierce scientific intrigue.

Clarify and Classify – what’s in a name?

Parasite, n. a person who lives at the expense of another, or of society in general; esp. (in early use) a person who obtains the hospitality or patronage of the wealthy or powerful by obsequiousness and flattery; (in later use, a person whose behaviour resembles that of a plant or animal parasite; a sponger. Chiefly derogatory.[1]

Parasite, originally from the greek parasitos – one who eats at the table of another – was historically a positive name bestowed on temple assistants who helped to select the sacred grain for religious ceremonies. It was a vocation and a privilege.  As the vocation evolved (forgive the pun) parasites would receive free meals in exchange for entertainment at dinner parties as companions to the rich. Greek comic tradition made a caricature of the parasite, emphasizing their ambitions for free meals and their willingness to do anything to get them.

(A)  Oh Stratius, dost thou love me?

(B)  Aye, I do.  More than my father, for he does not feed me;

But you do give the best of dinners daily.

(A)  And do you pray the gods that I may live?

(B)  No doubt I do; for how should I myself
Live if misfortune happened unto you?[2]

The word parasite then came to apply to anyone who exploited the wealthy or flattered their way into dinner invitations. Over time the term was appropriated by botanists and naturalists – eventually biologists – and applied to the natural world. At first organisms were described as ‘parasite-like’ or had ‘parasitical habits’ but slowly the word ‘parasite’ took on a biological meaning in its own right, one which would come to eclipse the original.

Thus, quite naturally, biological parasites are endowed with human attributes, anthropomorphised and given agency, but this was a two-way dialogue for the historical parasite too came to take on attributes of the biological. This is represented in the composite literary figure, which is both social and biological. The literary parasite often has the flattery and obsequiousness of the historical parasite whilst possessing the somatically destructive influences of its biological counterpart. Figures like Count Dracula, Miss Penclosa and Mr Hyde harm their hosts materially and physically, taking away not just their health, but their morality, reputation, money and even threaten the very culture in which they live. The figure of the parasite is an abject figure, cast out to reflect the incongruous aspects of society.

Propagating notions of disease and degradation associated with their place in the natural hierarchy, the parasite also represents social anxiety concerning overpopulation, social mobility and colonial expansion. Darwin’s theory of natural selection provided much of the anxiety that pervades the fiction of the fin-de-siècle; ‘the structure of every organic being is related, in the most essential yet often hidden manner, to that of all other organic beings, which then comes into competition for food or residence, or from which it has to escape, or on which it preys.’[3] This interconnectedness emphasized the interdependence of the struggle; the resemblance ‘is obvious in the structure of the teeth and talons of the tiger; and in that of the legs and claws of the parasite which clings to the hair on the tiger’s body’.[4] The positing of the parasite and predator side by side in the natural hierarchy is problematic. Darwin’s theory suggested that it wasn’t the big and strong that necessarily survived, but the best adapted, providing the parasite with unprecedented power as a locus of anxiety.

SEM photo of a Hookworm – I think he’s rather cute!


[1] ‘Parasite’ OED Online (2012) http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/137636?rskey=xHdO5M&result=1#eid [accessed May 2012]

[2] C. D. Yonge, trans. (1854) Athenaeus: The Deipnosophists Book Six (circa. 3rd Century AD) pp 234-248 http://www.attalus.org/old/athenaeus6b.html [accessed May 2012]

[3] Charles Darwin On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)p138

[4] ibid. p139

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2 thoughts on “An extraordinary Instinct for the Horrible.

  1. Pingback: ‘Are we in England Infested by Parasites?’ Historical reports from the BNA. « interdisciplinarydialogues

  2. Pingback: Gently Licking Worms & Preaching Mosquitoes: the Linguistic Dialogue Between Parasitology and Religion | Victorian Parasites

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