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VEGETABLE MONSTERS: MAN-EATING TREES IN FIN-DE-SIÈCLE FICTION

  • Cheryl Blake Price (a1)
Extract

Gothic stories and fictionalized travel accounts featuring dangerous exotic plants appeared throughout the nineteenth century and were especially prevalent at the fin de siècle. As the century progressed and the public's fascination with these narratives grew, fictional plants underwent a narrative evolution. By the end of the Victorian period, deadly plants had been transformed from passive poisoners into active carnivores. Stories about man-eating trees, among the most popular of the deadly plant tales, reflect this narrative progression. The trope of the man-eating tree developed out of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century accounts of a much less dangerous plant: the Javanese upas. Tales about the upas described the tree as having a poisonous atmosphere which killed every living thing within a several mile radius. The existence of this plant was first reported by a Dutch surgeon named Foersch in a 1783 article published in the London Magazine, and the story was recounted several times throughout the century (“The Valley of Poison” 46). A typical account of the popular tale would highlight the exotic location and the mysterious power of the tree:

Somewhere in the far recesses of Java there is, according to Foersch, a dreadful tree, the poisonous secretions of which are so virulent, that they not only kill by contact, but poison the air for several miles around, so that the greater number of those who approach the vegetable monster are killed. Nothing whatever, he tells us, can grow within several miles of the upas tree, except some little trees of the same species. For a distance of about fifteen miles round the spot, the ground is covered with the skeletons of birds, beasts, and human beings. (“The Upas Tree of Fact and Fiction” 12)

Even though more credible adventurers revealed the inaccuracies of Foersch's report and thoroughly discredited the fantastic powers attributed to the upas, the story nonetheless took hold of the Victorian imagination. As a result of Foersch's widely-circulated narrative, the word “upas” was rapidly incorporated into the English lexicon; writers such as Erasmus Darwin, Thomas Carlyle, Charlotte Brontë, and Charles Dickens use the upas as a metaphor for a person, object, or idea that has a poisonous, destructive atmosphere. The upas was even a subject for nineteenth-century art, as evidenced by Francis Danby's 1820 gothic painting of a solitary upas tree in the midst of a desolate rocky landscape. Although the myth of the upas focuses on the tree's lethal powers, it is important to note that the upas is, relatively speaking, a very passive “vegetable monster.” The plant is potentially dangerous, but stationary; extremely isolated, it is only harmful to those who rashly ignore the warning signs and wander within the area of its poisonous influence. Even in these exaggerated accounts, the upas is a non-carnivorous monster that grows in a remote, uninhabited area of Java.

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Victorian Literature and Culture
  • ISSN: 1060-1503
  • EISSN: 1470-1553
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