‘The Body Snatcher’ is a reminder from the 19th century that some secrets refuse to stay buried

The Body Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson

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History & ambition meet horror & atonement in The Body Snatcher

In the 19th century, the line between right and wrong in the medical field got a bit, well, complicated. Enter Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Body Snatcher. With a high demand for cadavers for research, some individuals went to extreme lengths in the name of science.

What’s even more intriguing is that this story is inspired by true crime events of the time. Based on the real-life exploits of individuals who went to extreme lengths to supply the medical co mmunity with cadavers, Stevenson crafts a narrative that not only captivates with its elements of horror but also sheds light on society’s shifting moral compass.

The Body Snatcher is an uncomfortable look at the consequences of ambition and the haunting aftermath of certain choices. If you’re looking for a story that’s suspenseful, morbid and thought-provoking, this is it. Below you’ll find the full story, updated with fresh illustrations.

>> Read the full text of The Body Snatcher here!

The Body Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson: a shadowy figure in 19th-century attire, holding a lantern amidst gravestones in a dark, atmospheric graveyard setting

A Victorian-era true crime incident inspired The Body Snatcher

Robert Louis Stevenson, a luminary of 19th-century literature, is best known for his adventure stories like Treasure Island and psychological thrillers like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Among his lesser-known yet equally fascinating works is The Body Snatcher.

This short story, first published in 1884, offers a chilling foray into the dark corners of human morality. Drawing inspiration from the notorious real-life case of Burke and Hare, who committed murders to sell the bodies for medical science in Edinburgh, Stevenson weaves a tale that blurs the lines between fiction and history.

Set against the backdrop of the medical world in the early 19th century, The Body Snatcher delves into the ethical abyss of body snatching, reflecting Stevenson’s interest in the complex interplay of morality, science and human nature.

The Body Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson: Fettes and his medical school professor, engaged in discussion amidst cadavers.

Themes and motifs in The Body Snatcher

The Body Snatcher is rich in themes and motifs that challenge the reader’s sense of morality and reality. One of the most prominent themes is the ethical quandary the characters face. Stevenson skillfully explores how individuals navigate the murky waters of moral decisions when confronted with the allure of scientific advancement and personal gain. The story also examines the horror of reality, making readers question where fiction ends and truth begins. Stevenson’s narrative suggests that sometimes, the most terrifying horrors are those grounded in reality, not supernatural elements.

The corruption of innocence is another critical theme. Characters in The Body Snatcher start with a degree of innocence or moral integrity, which gradually erodes as they become embroiled in the macabre trade of body snatching. This transformation reflects the corrupting influence of certain societal and professional pressures. Stevenson uses these characters to examine how moral decay can occur when exposed to ethical compromises, highlighting the fine line between good and evil in human nature.

The Body Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson: Fettes is shown pulling back a sheet on a cadaver

Character analysis in The Body Snatcher

Central to The Body Snatcher is the character of Fettes, whose journey from an ambitious medical student to a morally compromised individual forms the crux of the story. His transformation highlights the internal conflict between ambition and ethics. Fettes initially appears idealistic, but as the story progresses, his character unravels, revealing the impact of his choices and the weight of his guilt.

Dr. Macfarlane, another pivotal character, embodies moral ambiguity. He is charismatic yet morally dubious, representing the duality of human nature. His character raises questions about the role of mentors and the influence they wield over young minds like Fettes.

While less deeply explored, the minor characters advance the narrative and reinforce the central themes. Their interactions with Fettes and Dr. Macfarlane add layers to the story, making it not just a tale of horror but also a study of human behavior under extraordinary circumstances.

The Body Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson: An intense confrontation between Fettes and Macfarlane

Narrative structure and literary techniques in The Body Snatcher

Stevenson’s mastery of storytelling is evident in The Body Snatcher. He employs a narrative structure that gradually builds suspense, drawing readers deeper into the story’s unsettling world. The use of first-person narrative in parts of the story creates a sense of immediacy and intimacy, making the reader an active participant in the unfolding drama.

The elements of suspense and horror are pivotal in The Body Snatcher. Stevenson skillfully uses these to heighten the story’s impact, creating an atmosphere of dread that lingers with the reader. The use of imagery and symbolism is also noteworthy. The story is laden with symbols that enhance its themes, such as the depiction of darkness and fog, which often symbolize the characters’ moral ambiguity and the murky ethics surrounding their actions.

The Body Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson: On a rain-soaked road, the gig carries Fettes and Macfarlane, with the unsettling presence of the wet sack and the looming ghost of Gray

Historical context and influence of The Body Snatcher

The Body Snatcher is deeply rooted in its historical context, drawing from the infamous Burke and Hare murders. These real-life events, where bodies were sold for dissection to medical schools, provide a grim backdrop to the story. Stevenson’s narrative offers a window into the Victorian era’s societal attitudes towards science, medicine, and morality. It reflects the tensions and ethical dilemmas of the time, especially in the field of medical science.

The novella also had a significant impact on Victorian society. It brought to the forefront the ethical issues surrounding medical research and the procurement of bodies for scientific study. In literature, it contributed to the horror and crime fiction genre, influencing how such themes were explored in subsequent works.

The Body Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson: An older Fettes, looking confrontational, stands across from an equally aged Macfarlane, who clutches his medical bag.

Modern relevance of The Body Snatcher

Decades after its publication, The Body Snatcher resonates with modern audiences. Its themes of ethical ambiguity and the moral dilemmas faced in the pursuit of scientific progress are as relevant today as they were in Stevenson’s time. The story finds parallels in contemporary debates around medical ethics, research practices, and the moral responsibilities of medical professionals.

Furthermore, The Body Snatcher has left an indelible mark on modern horror and crime genres. Its influence can be seen in how contemporary stories explore psychological horror and moral complexities, making it a timeless piece that continues to inspire and provoke thought.

The lasting impact of The Body Snatcher

In conclusion, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Body Snatcher is more than a simple horror story. It profoundly explores morality, ethics, and the human condition. Its blend of historical context, rich character development, and masterful storytelling makes it a significant work in Stevenson’s oeuvre and the broader literature landscape. The story’s lasting impact on culture and its continued relevance today attest to Stevenson’s genius and the enduring power of a well-told tale. 👻


The Body Snatcher movie from 1945

Ready for one last twist? There’s a 1945 movie that brought this classic ghost story to life, complete with all the suspense, shady dealings and haunting surprises. Directed by Robert Wise and starring big names like Boris Karloff (Frankenstein) and Bela Lugosi (Dracula), The Body Snatcher is a must-watch horror classic from film’s golden age. Take a peek below into how Hollywood tackled this chilling tale!

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