The most common narrative in temperance fiction begins with a young male who, in longing to exercise the privileges of adulthood and yearning for excitement, allows himself to be lured, usually by a "fast" young man, into a drinking establishment. The subsequent "fatal first drink" launches him into a downward spiral.
In temperance fiction, imagination and ambition were associated with strong drink. Imaginative and ambitious young men were thought to be particularly susceptible to drink's seductive powers. Finding their day-to-day existence boring and unfulfilling, they imagined the possibility of better lives and tried to make their dreams realities. Therefore, they were willing to take risks. Since this leading character was usually portrayed as a sympathetic and appealing figure, the author needed to take credibility to his decision to take that fatal first glass. That is, temperance writers needed to make drink attractive enough to have lured a good young man from the path of virtue without making the intoxication so attractive that the reader would want to follow him. Temperance writers generally acknowledged this dilemma by acknowledging liquor's initial attractiveness, but then going on to explain this attractiveness as a mask behind which the true horrible consequences lurked.
In depicting the moment of the "fatal first drink," and in exploring the relationship of the drinker to his drink, Victorian temperance writers participated in the wider cultural discussion about the nature of free will, as well as of moral responsibility for antisocial acts. Temperance novels and tales should be considered alongsides the many works of Victorian fiction that attempted to express and explore that moment at which a person was transformed from an average man or woman into a social monster.
Much as writers of seduction narratives depicted the seduced as innocent or nearly innocent victims of the seducers' wiles, so temperance writers held innkeepers and devious "fast friends" chiefly, or even solely, for the drinker's downfall. Taking advantage of the (nearly always male) leading character's weaknesses --his dream of achieving a more exciting and rewarding life than the one he knew, and his tendency to trust those who claimed to be working for his interest--, these men and women convinced him that drink would bring him closer to that idealized fantasy world of comfort, leisure, excitement, and elegance. Young women offering drink were always beautiful and always "bejewelled." Seduced by this promise of luxury and beauty that the victim had dared to hope would one day supplant, he took his first drink. The first drink often surpassed expectation. In Mary Chellis's fiction, Casper, a young art merchant, takes his first drink, which gives him "a feeling of exhilaration" that would soon bring him back for a second.
Temperance writers make it clear, however, that while a young man's curiosity and desire for excitement and/or change brought him to take his first glass, the violence and degradation that followed were out of his control. Significantly, given the contemporary (19th-century) debate of nature vs. nurture, temperance writers went to great lengths to depict the drunkard's progress not as a sin or failing on his part, but rather as a seduction and enslavement by liquor itself.
Once a young man had taken that fatal first drink, he was, in the logic of temperance fiction, absolutely powerless to resist future drink. Sometimes a tavernkeeper would covertly pour strong liquor in what was purportedly only lemonade or small beer, or drug a customer's glass of liquor, or even serve liquor to a customer who thought he was only drinking soda water.
Narrators, particularly those who were temperance reformers, often gave elaborate explanations of how a young man came to take his first drink. Generally he believed that, by drinking liquor, he could establish himself as mature, manly, and unafraid of the warnings of parents/guardians, wives/fiancées, siblings, and reformers. His decision to drink represented an attempt to escape the constraints of family and community opinion and to establish some degree of independence. Often, he combined this desire to escape family and communal restraints with an overly optimistic assessment of his own willpower, as he assured himself that he was in no danger of becoming a slave to alcohol, though he knew that others had.
Of course, temperance writers knew that, once he took his first drink, the young man would have within him a growing desire for alcohol. In an 1880 temperance hygiene book for children, Julia Coleman warned her readers that the danger of alcohol lay in its ability to "create such a craving in the drinker that he longs to be poisoned again." A female character in a temperance novel feared that while she herself had "no desire for alcohol, it may be that a single glass might arouse a demon in my breast which would not down at my bidding." Alcohol had the ability to create (or, more terrifyingly, arouse) a desire for itself within the drinker. However, if human seducers and alcohol itself were able to reshape, transform, and even create the (future) drinker's desires, it became very unclear to what extent those desires belonged to the drinker at all. Like accounts of sexual seduction and rape and/or abduction, stories of the drinker's seduction and coercion blended easily into one another.
The drinker's real problem, the seduction metaphor implied, was that he had become alienated from his own desires. Because the drinker's desires were wound up in the fantastic idealized images created by his seducers, they were, in an important sense, no longer expressions of his self, but rather of that of his seducers. Although they took care to establish the illegitimacy of the drinker's desires, the authors of temperance fiction often seemed simultaneously to empathize with those same desires. Some of these temperance reformers' most astute critics noted their seemingly paradoxical tendency to glamourize alcohol. In 1888, Edgar Watson Howe charged that temperance followers made strong drink appear exciting, talking "too much about the pleasure of strong drink, and of its pleasing effects," when in fact "the reputed pleasure in the cup is a myth [···] drinking is an evidence of depravity as plainly marked as idleness and viciousness." Howe found it strange that professed opponents of alcohol so often dwelled at such length upon alcohol's attractions.
Howe was on to something important. Temperance reformers often describe the pleasures of alcohol with striking enthusiasm or even longing. Mary Dwynell Chellis has a rare female drunken character explain her own former fascination with strong drink. Though, significantly, she tries to block the memory, she cannot. A collage of images come back to her: "brilliantly-lighted rooms; the flashing of jewels, and the gleaming of white arms; music, and the fragrance of flowers; the subtle fumes of wine, and whispered words of passion she but half comprehended." In another novel, Chellis has her own temperance-reformer character, her author avatar, acknowledge that "people sometimes crave sparkling stimulants that foam and flash before her; and when imbibed, quicken all the pulses of their lives."
The idea that alcohol increased desire and destroyed contentment remained prominent within the drink discourse through the progressive Victorian era.
There was a significant slippage, even in narratives produced by the most solid temperance supporters, between understanding strong drink as the cause of discontent and instability as its effect. Writers and tellers of such narratives often quite literally meant to convey that alcohol was the source of all social evils and that the individual's willingness to take a drink was the Achilles heel of his otherwise unassailable moral self. Yet many, perhaps even more, tellers of temperance narratives at time used alcohol and the "fatal first drink" as a sort of synecdoche or shorthand for a much more general process of embracing discontent. Drinking liquor, in this understanding, was a moment of discontent; a sign that the drinker had chosen to abandon comfort, home, and steady security in favour of risk and mobility.
To the extent that tellers of these narratives meant the "fatal first drink" more as shorthand for a process of discontent than as the literal cause of all the drinker's woes, they marked the drinker, even before he consumed his first drink, as "discontented," "ambitious," "fast," or "fanciful." When a temperance novel introduced a character as "a restless, ambitious boy," the readers knew that these were future drunkards. In William Constock's novels, one character agrees to take his fatal first drink out of a desire to remain on good terms with another man, who offers to help him out of a failing speculation. Narrators depicted the drinker, shortly after his consumption of his first drink, as engaged in multiple forms of risky behaviour, such as gambling and consuming other drugs. There was rarely a "fatal first dice throw" in these narratives. When there was one, it utterly lacked the weight of the "fatal first drink." The reader simply assumed that, having taken a first drink, the protagonist had completely given himself over to risk and chance.
Read literally, this narrative suggested that alcohol was fully responsible for the drinker's decline. Read as a synecdoche, however, the same narrative suggested that both his drinking and his decline were a natural result of certain related and preexisting character traits, such as discontent, ambition, and fastness.
Temperance writers acknowledged that there was a certain class of giddy and risk-taking young women who seduced men into taking their fatal first drink. Falling under the spell of such a seductress was parallel to entering the dangerous space of the pub.
Almost always, even those narrators employing the language of invasion imagined that the future drinker, through a somewhat voluntary act, opened himself to alcohol's attack. Once a young man had taken that fatal first drink, however, he was, in the logic of many temperance narratives, absolutely powerless to resist future drink. As one temperance physician wrote in 1882, "the smallest sip of the weakest form of fermented or distilled liquor has power to set in a blaze the hidden unhallowed fire." In most of the temperance narratives, the power of the first sip was equally strong even for those with "untainted" heritage.
By taking his first drink, the drinker put himself in the power of evil companions, and, perhaps more importantly, allowed alcohol to enter his body and begin to transform it. The alcohol coursed through his veins, unseating his reason and inspiring in him a thirst for more. It pervaded him entirely and wiped away any positive resolutions he may have had. In fact, ultimately, it wiped away the drinker himself. As one author describes, "there was not much left of him."
The physical bodies invaded by alcohol often were seen in a double character as both the victims and the perpetrators of the invasion. That is, invasion language all too frequently slid into seduction language. The seeming omnipresence of alcohol and the shifting of position between invader and invaded on the discourse of drink made the metaphor of invasion considerably more disturbing than comforting. As on the other levels of metaphorical invasion (and like vampirism, a close thematic relative), alcohol first had to be voluntarily admitted by its victim. He might choose to take a first drink because of social pressure, a desire for excitement, and/or overconfidence in his own powers of self-control. An 1872 textbook describes alcohol as "so seductive in its advances, so insidious in its influence, and so terrible in its triumph." Only after it had gained a foothold in an individual body did it reveal its true nature.
Belle Brain, in her 1897 handbook Weapons for Temperance Warfare [···] Among the excerpts to be read aloud was: "[···] only to pour down that 'raging Phlegethon of alcohol,' than which no river of the Inferno is more blood-red or more accursed." Here is a familiar pattern. Strong drink was worse than other devils because it was, as one 1894 pamphlet put it, a "liquid devil," polluting and transforming the bodies that consumed it. It "permeated" bodies, introducing the disturbing possibility that it could no longer be separated from them.
Alcohol was a particular type of transforming agent. Just as Dracula could not enter a home unless voluntarily admitted, so alcohol could not invade any body without some degree of consent.
Of course, the individual did, almost always, make a choice to take his "fatal first drink." In temperance novels, he often made the choice because of a desire for excitement and an insufficient respect for the advice of his betters. Even before he drank, the drinker --always carefully and repeatedly described as pure, perfect, and ideal-- possessed that one aspect of his character congenial to alcohol. Once he drank, of course, alcohol worked to weaken his will, particularly his will to cease drinking. If alcohol was an invader, one of the first things it did inside the body was to foment an insurrection. It transformed the will, creating an appetite for itself in the invaded body. Drinking, it was common to say in temperance circles, "dethroned reason." As the drinker drank more and more, he became "not himself." He behaved entirely differently than he would have behaved if he had been sober. Yet, if he was "not himself," who was he?
The phrase "dethroned reason," was potentially unsettling, for it suggested that reason was a monarch ruling over the rest of the body: an old metaphor but one not quite appropriate in a free Western world in the aftermath of revolutions. As one temperance physiologist puts it, alcohol released "the brutish part of human nature [···] The beasts of the menagerie may be no fiercer than before but they rage more violently and are more dangerous because the cages are open and the keepers are gone." He followed this wild animal analogy to a thinly veiled analogy to social class: "The lower passions being thus left without a master, the tendency to evil of every sort is greatly augmented." Put this way, intoxication begins to sound less like invasion and more like insurrection. Alcohol is not exactly causing the drinker to be something other than "himself"; it is enabling one part of him to revolt against its betters. As another physiology text explained, when one becomes intoxicated, "the hidden nature comes to the surface. All the gloss of education and social restraint falls off, and the lower nature stands revealed." In the late nineteenth century, poised between the faculty psychology of the early century and the Freudianism soon to come, the status of this repressed hidden nature, this beast within, had become increasingly uncertain. On one level, strong drink was an external force attacking a body that could be imagined as being somehow sound underneath the attack. That is, one could imagine extracting or driving out the invader to reveal a pure and whole body. On another level, though, drink was an infiltrating force not so much itself attacking the body as revealing the body's preexisting fissures and corruption.
Temperance advocates' metaphor of invasion, then, was entirely complicated. Certainly they continued, in many formats, to insist that the nation, the community, the home, and the body were essentially pure though temporarily invaded. However, they interspersed these repeated assertions with the metaphor was in tension. Drinkers, homes, communities, and nations were pure, yet there was something within them that caused them to allow alcohol to enter, and some part of their putatively pure bodies acted as a fifth column on behalf of invading alcohol.
At times, particularly when they insisted upon the metaphor of the perfect body, this characterization seems fairly accurate --both for temperance reformers and for their opponents. Taken as a whole, however, the discouse of strong drink was not a comforting discourse. Often it was too inconsistent and self-questioning to provide any answers, and often the implications of the invasion metaphor were deeply unsettling. Temperance reformers wrestled with the question of purity. They mobilized the potentially comforting metaphor of the pure body beset by external invaders, but they also insistently and continually undermined that metaphor by telling stories in which the invaded body was in some way identical with or sympathetic to the invader. Certainly it would have been possible for them to focus on hoary nativist arguments and to insist upon young humankind's pristine purity. By and large, however, temperance reformers did not take that path. If anything, they seem to have dwelled the most upon those things that rendered the metaphor of the invaded body most problematic, rejecting again and again the comfort it offered.
Temperance reformers were engaged in a process of constructing and destroying a metaphorical pure body. One of the most surprising things about the nineteenth-century discourse of strong drink is how subtly it changed from its early days in the 1830s through the end of the century. Even as they repeatedly told the same old narrative, drink debaters slowly reformulated it, negotiated its terms, and sought solutions to the problems it posed. After the mid-century's last liberal revolutions, as reformers began to tell the story through the language of invasion rather than that of seduction, they drew lessons from their own invasion accounts that they would apply to their reform tactics. If alcohol won men over not through its seductive influence but through its invasive coercion, and if it did so by storming through their bodies replacing their native desires and tendencies with artificial ones, then perhaps reforming women could win men back in a similar manner. More and more reformers, inspired by invasion language, called for women to leave the home, invade the male domain, and reclaim drunkards by force.
"Unlike most female-written fiction in the nineteenth century, temperance fiction does not end with the marriage of the heroine, but, instead, generally begins with the wedding,” and it is
almost universally true that the temperance tale “explores the very real
problematic circumstances women must face after the ceremony,” rather
than the drama preceding the vows.5
The marriage in question begins as
a happy, promising, and decidedly middle-class arrangement. The new
husband has grand prospects: Smith’s Edward Middleton is a businessman
and landowner, Stowe’s Edward Howard is, somewhat more vaguely,
“first in the society in which he moved,” and the husband in T. S. Arthur’s
“The Drunkard’s Wife” is Doctor Harper. Caroline Lee Hentz’s Mr.
Franklin is even more considerable: “a member of Congress, a distinguished
lawyer.” Consequently, the wife in each story has good reason
to believe that her marital decision has been made wisely; she, her friends,
and her proud parents expect domestic bliss to follow in turn.
Then, inevitably, come the bottle and the descent, usually traced
through three tiers of depravity. First, the happy and prosperous family is
unbalanced, but only slightly, by the introduction of “demon” alcohol.
Importantly, the first drink is never entirely the husband’s fault; his essential
goodness, despite the dark turns each narrative will take, is not at
In what I will call “domestic temperance” stories, the fallen
husband begins as a paragon of bourgeois perfection, and never—even at
his most degraded—entirely sheds a dimmed halo of his former goodness. Domestic temperance stories maintain continual hope for reformation,
and so the drunkard retains enough humanity to warrant such
an outcome. This narrative shaping begins early, as each story emphasizes
the husband’s non-complicit or uninformed entrance into the dark
night of spirits. In The Drunkard a begrudging lawyer, Cribbs, first
leads Edward into the tavern and buys his first drink, feigning friendly
collegiality. In “The Drunkard’s Wife” the doctor is offered “a good
stiff glass of brandy” or wine when making house calls during winter,
as a buffer against the cold. The first step is always minute and inadvertent,
and the wife bears it with only moderate concern, if she is concerned
The first token of Redburn's descent into evil is his breaking of the temperance pledge. When he accepts grog to relieve seasickness, he wishes guiltily that "when I signed the pledge of abstinence, I had not taken care to insert a little clause, allowing me to drink spirits on the case of seasickness." But break the pledge he does, and, as he puts it, violating the pledge "insidiously opened the way to subsequent breaches of it, which carried no apology with them."
After his first sip of alcohol, Redburn is prepared to associate with drunken sailors and to accompany his friend Harry Bolton into a lavish den of iniquity.
Authors used images of strong drink to structure plots, to signal character types, to embellish a theme, to teach a lesson, and to promote a cause.
The nineteenth-century temperance tale enjoyed success by generally sticking to a formula: a young innocent boy [···] has his first drink of alcohol, [···]. Elaine Frantz Parsons identifies six key features of these narratives: (1) the young male protagonist is a particularly promising young man; (2) he falls largely or entirely because of external influences; (3) he is weak-willed and too eager to please his new friends; (4) his desire for drink overwhelms all else; (5) he loses his control over family, economic life, and/or his own body; and (6) if he is redeemed, it is through a powerful external influence.