Despite years of examination and investigation, the topic of necrophilia -- a love or fascination for the dead -- remains about as mysterious as death itself. Although an abundance of necrophilic imagery appears in popular culture, there exists relatively little theory or research into the actual subject. As Lisa Downing describes in Desiring the Dead, not much has changed since its initial recognition and treatment as "an instance of pathological perversion" in Richard von Krafft-Ebing's 1886 work Psychopathia Sexualis (2). By and large, people today still tend to consider it a rare and extremely disturbing phenomenon with few, if any, origins outside of an abnormal mindset. Downing declares that one of the greatest causes for this lack of information lies in its definition, which even today leaves much to be desired. For instance, the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology's description, published in 2001, simply explains necrophilia as a "paraphilia characterised by recurrent sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges or behaviour involving intercourse with dead bodies" (qtd. in Downing 3). In itself, this definition fails to pinpoint the personal reasons of people who engage in the practice, which may include such motives as loneliness or grief. As Downing goes on to describe, it also fails to accurately reflect reality, for cases commonly labeled as examples of necrophilia exist wherein no such intercourse occurred and the source of fascination rested not in the sexuality of the corpse but in its mutilation or some other aspect (3). However, much more lies in the attraction, meaning, and significance of necrophilia beyond such a definition when taken in a cultural context. Far from being a remote concern or merely a medium for romantic tragedy, the necrophilic elements in Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Ring of Thoth" acts as an aesthetic ideal on both personal and cultural levels through the idea of a perfect female partner and the philosophical adherence to natural processes.
At first, when considering necrophilia, the entire matter may seem too remote to affect the average person. As a result, "The Ring of Thoth" can appear to readers as simply a curiosity of the imagination and nothing more. As Dany Nobus describes in "Over My Dead Body: On the Histories and Cultures of Necrophilia," people commonly react to the issue of necrophilia with skepticism in regards to its immediate concern, especially when considering its worth in discussion. For instance, Nobus inquires in their stead: "Isn't necrophilia more indicative of the limitlessness of human fantasy than of the problematic extent of sexual misconduct within contemporary society? Aren't there more pressing relational imbalances to be addressed than that of a human being indulging in sexual intercourse with a cadaver?" (171). While such assumptions seem quite reasonable in respect to the rare reports of necrophilia as an actual occurrence in real life, they do not explain how the idea has persisted as one of the most pervasive taboo topics in most, if not all, societies. Frequently, people may consider this effect merely as the result of the imaginations of artists and writers who explore it in their works. However, this rationalization still fails to account for why the idea of necrophilia, in spite of its remoteness on a personal level, garners so much widespread attention to begin with. Beyond simply being "an instance of pathological perversion," necrophilia also exists as a cultural symbol intimately tied to the handling of death, an event that affects everyone sooner or later in life. In short, necrophilia captures people's attentions, not because of its possibility, but because of what it reflects.
Another common misconception of necrophilia is that its source lies almost always in the excessive grief over a lost loved one. In "The Ring of Thoth," Doyle seems to encourage this interpretation over any other in Sosra's failed romance with Atma where, by a cruel twist of fate, he finds himself forced to live for thousands of years after her untimely death. In regards to the time after her passing, Sosra describes: "Never did an Arab thirst after the sweetest wells as I longed after death. Could poison or steel have shortened the thread of my existence, I should soon have rejoined my love in the land with the narrow portal" (Doyle 307). In that passage, Sosra expresses his desire for death not in the usual conception of sexuality but instead in the emotional attachment he had for Atma and his desire to reunite with her. Although a reader may initially consider this cause as nothing more than a typical feature of a romantic tragedy, this type of necrophilia does have its support in reality. Indeed, as Jonathan P. Rosman and Phillip J. Resnick report in their study "Sexual Attraction to Corpses: A Psychiatric Review of Necrophilia," 21 percent of the cases they studied included this as one of the main motives for the act (159). However, the problem with this understanding lies in that people often take it as the only explanation. Besides the necrosadism frequently hyped by the media in cases involving homicide, the notion of emotional attachment as the main cause of necrophilia appears repetitively in fiction as well as people's rationalizations of it. In actuality, though, the inclusion of necrophilia in any piece of work brings with it a multitude of other understandings, especially when taken beyond the single instance to a wider cultural perspective that includes the ideologies of the time.
Of these beliefs, the aesthetic beauty of death appears prominently in Doyle's "The Ring of Thoth," especially through the portrayal of Atma. The moment Sosra begins to unwrap her bandages, the narrative markedly highlights her physical beauty when it states:
First, a cascade of long, black, glossy tresses poured over the workman's hands and arms. A second turn of the bandage revealed a low, white forehead, with a pair of delicately arched eyebrows. A third uncovered a pair of bright, deeply fringed eyes, and a straight, well-cut nose, while a fourth and last showed a sweet, full, sensitive mouth, and a beautifully curved chin. (Doyle 298)At first, this may seem but an instance of praise directed at the workmanship of the embalmers involved, but it also commends the sensuality of the corpse itself. Downing describes this literary phenomenon as one that centers on specific traits of beauty, in this case such feminine qualities as "black hair" and paleness, combined with the unsettling presence of death in the person's funerary attire (27). In addition, she explains that this ideal originates not simply in the presence of beauty itself, which can be found among the living as well, but rather a type of aesthetic appreciation wherein the viewer feels the "dual sentiment of sorrow and despair" in the perception of beauty stopped in its prime (27). In this manner, the tragedy of the failed romance in "The Ring of Thoth" takes on an added significance when considering it, too, becomes an instance of beauty cut short near or at its peak. However, on a more basic level, Atma also exists in function as the perfect partner in her absolute passivity once dead. As Rosman and Resnick report in their study, the far more common motive of necrophilia, at 68 percent of the cases they studied, focused upon the idea of possessing "an unresisting and unrejecting partner" (158). Whereas Atma attempts to refuse Sosra in life by turning down an offer of immortal existence with him, she has no such power of choice once dead to deny him any longer (Doyle 306, 315). As a result, Atma becomes not only a physical example of beauty in her almost artistic appearance but also in her ultimate submission.
However, necrophilia also acts as a philosophical ideal in its most fundamental qualities, particularly in its destructive elements. Although a person may initially think of necrophilic destruction only in relation to cases involving necrosadism and the mutilation of corpses, the very idea of necrophilia depends upon death and thus decay, a highly destructive state in itself. In some instances of necrophilia, to partake in this destructive quality of death becomes the main goal and desire, not just a sexual or emotional interaction with the corpse. As Downing describes, this idea "draws on the notion that nothing is unnatural as, in order for an action to be able to take place, Nature must already allow for it within her system" (20-21). In particular, she states that the transgressive pleasure of this aspect of necrophilia comes from "opposing the falsely constructed social laws which are seen to be wholly in opposition to Nature's intentions" (21). In "The Ring of Thoth," this theory shows in Sosra's clear defiance of the borders set between life and death in his constant desire for Atma, even after her passing. In this manner, he openly breaks those social boundaries by persisting in a love that feels natural and right to him. Additionally, he presents himself as an innate boundary-breaker through his near-immortality, which requires him to travel across many lands and thus disregard such cultural rules as a part of his nature (Doyle 312). He even sets his attempt at immortality as a caution for others in not defying nature's course when he states: "It may be decreed that I should leave some account behind as a warning to all rash mortals who would set their wits up against workings of Nature" (303). Consequently, beyond simply being a source of passive physical beauty, the dead become an object of active aesthetics in its decay and a living person's appreciation of it.
Initially, the practice of necrophilia seems like a very personal matter in that, usually, the perpetrator interacts with the dead in a private setting wherein he or she remains the only witness of the act itself. If the event is discovered, most people react with at least some measure of disgust they believe as inherent in the idea of someone breaking such seemingly clear-cut divisions between the living and the dead. However, when taken out of this intimate context and placed into a wider social perspective, a person can begin to see not only the personal reasons involved in necrophilia but even the ways in which a culture encourages and idolizes it. In doing so, a person can begin to see past his or her deeply ingrained opinions and beliefs to become aware of and question the messages and values of his or her own society. As a result, a person's view of both fictional works and real life reports of necrophilia moves beyond the fascination or disgust of the individual and to the culture itself.
For instance, although Doyle portrays "The Ring of Thoth" as a tragic story centered upon members of an ancient culture, the actual tragedy is placed in Victorian society and values, not the ones of old. In particular, when considering Victorian gender ideals, readers can draw a direct comparison through Atma's character traits, particularly her passivity and beauty, in the qualities of a model woman held during that period. In addition, Victorians held the idea of tragic passion in high esteem, particularly in the context of mourning the dead. Far from being a mere personal quality, Sosra's love for Atma embodies a Victorian ideal by combining the forbiddenness of desire and the extreme foreignness of death into a specific aesthetic model of emotion. Regina Barreca explains in Sex and Death in Victorian Literature: "Affliction, not affection, was the Victorian construct of passion. The passions of desire were shifted on to the passions of death through a metaphysical and metaphorical sleight of hand" (6-7). In short, the very elements of necrophilia that raise the most revulsion in many people became a romantic ideal in Victorian culture by their crossing of forbidden boundaries. As a result of these connections, Doyle's "The Ring of Thoth" moves past being a mere horror story about lost love and cursed immortality and instead becomes a reflector of very specific Victorian aesthetic theories. Although such ideas as necrophilia may remain taboo topics for years to come, they can always teach a person about not only how to look at the world in a different way but also to better recognize the peculiarities of his or her own worldview.
Barreca, Regina. "Introduction: Coming and Going in Victorian Literature." Sex and Death in Victorian Literature. London: Macmillan Press, 1990. 1-8.
Downing, Lisa. Desiring the Dead: Necrophilia and Nineteenth-Century French Literature. Legenda. Oxford: University of Oxford, 2003.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. "The Ring of Thoth." The Captain of the Polestar and Other Tales. Short Story Index Reprint Series. New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1970. 289-315.
Nobus, Dany. "Over My Dead Body: On the Histories and Cultures of Necrophilia." Inappropriate Relationships: The Unconventional, the Disapproved, and the Forbidden. Ed. Robin Goodwin and Duncan Cramer. Lea's Series on Personal Relationships. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002. 171-187.
Rosman, Jonathan P., and Phillip J. Resnick. "Sexual Attraction to Corpses: A Psychiatric Review of Necrophilia." The Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 17.2 (1989): 153-163.