“Late – Victorian fiction reworks the figure of the double in various ways in order to explore cultural contradictions and desires” Discuss in relation to The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
by Phen Weston
Robert Louis Stevenson’s masterpiece novella shocked audiences around the world with its dark look into human consciousness and human desires. Its socking ending soon made it extremely popular with its Victorian audience and even todays it still holds its readers on the edge of their seats, as well as countless modern interpretations, such as the Walter White/Heisenberg character on the popular AMC show Breaking Bad. Novelist Ian Rankin sums up its status well, “The doctor has played with fire and he’s burning from the inside. Sadly, we’ll never know the thrill experienced by this explosive book’s original audience” (Rankin, 2010).
Within its pages we can see the Victorian obsession of the double in all aspects of life. Dualism is defined by the Oxford dictionary (2014) as “The division of something conceptually into two opposed or contrasted aspects, or the state of being so divided”, and had been an idea that mankind had been intrigued with from our very early on. Through religions such as Christianity we are shown repeatedly the notion of the double in all things: good/evil, earth/heaven, and light/darkness.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth… And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light… And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night” (The Bible, Genesis 1:1-5).
This concept is one that had a great influence on a culture obsessed with order and the double was an idea that we could see being explored throughout the Victorian era and across the world with writers such as Poe and Dostoyevsky.
In the case of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde the rational doctor Jekyll and the animalistic beast Hyde. However, the split between these two characters is one that, at first, may seems clear cut, but by the end is this the case?
Stevenson (1886, p19) describes Jekyll as “a large, well-made, smooth-faced man of fifty, with something of a stylish cast perhaps, but every mark of capacity and kindness”. Through Utterson’s eyes we see Jekyll as the upstanding, caring Victorian gentleman, exactly what is expected of a middle class man of the period. We know through Stevenson that Jekyll comes from a good family and had a good education. Yet by his final statement we see that there is more to Jekyll than meets the eye. In his youth Jekyll was prone to “imperious desires” (Stevenson, 1886, p55) that he is very careful not to mention as well as knowing that for the sake of his standing as a gentleman and his career they had to stop. It was these desires that ultimately led to his experiments and Mr. Hyde in the first place. More so, Jekyll states that even when he has stopped becoming Hyde he still pursues these cravings. Is this unyielding pursuit of pleasure really that far from the animalistic Hyde he created to remove them from him or does Jekyll just stop caring about hiding the double in his nature? Steven Padnick (2012) argues “Jekyll did not create a potion to remove the evil parts of his nature. He made a potion that allowed him express his urges without feeling guilty and without any consequences besmirching his good name.” Through these actions Jekyll is removing all personal responsibility for whatever Hyde may do. Yet through at the end of the novella we realise that it is Jekyll perusing his desires and Hyde is merely a scapegoat and side effect:
“It was on the moral side [The Jekyll side] that I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man…I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both” (Stevenson, 1886, p56).
Jekyll cannot help but indulge in his desires, as himself or as Hyde.
“It was in my own person, that I was once more tempted to trifle with my conscience; and it was as an ordinary secret sinner, that I at last fell before the assaults of temptation” (Stevenson, 1886, p65).
Likewise, Hyde, the troglodyte, the unevolved man who is supposedly devoid of all human sentiment and emotion, can be seen to be very human indeed. He feels pleasure, collects art and even cries. Are these the signs of an animalistic sociopath?
At the time of publication of The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde Stevenson and his middle class readers would have been familiar with Lombroso’s 1876 ‘atavistic form’ theory on the criminally insane. Lombroso theorised that criminals were “throwbacks” of evolution, hence their criminal behaviour, and this could be seen in their appearance (Sammons, 2009). Within the text we can see this idea explored through the descriptions that are given of Hyde by those who encounter him:
“There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why. He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point. He’s an extraordinary-looking man, and yet I really can name nothing out of the way. No, sir; I can make no hand of it; I can’t describe him. And it’s not want of memory; for I declare I can see him this moment” (Stevenson, 1886, p10).
Those who meet Hyde can find no way to articulate his hideous deformities. Yet, the question remains how can a creature that is bereft of human emotions and thinking, someone who is devolved, be able to take pleasure in that which he does, including the atrocious acts of violence? Unlike animals, Hyde does not lack a sense of morality, he is not amoral, but wholly immoral, and he gains obvious pleasure from his criminal acts, as well as all fulfilment of desire.
This idea of Hyde more similar to those he meets, such as Utterson and Enfield, and by proxy the middle class readers can be seen throughout the text:
“Mr. Hyde had only used a couple of rooms; but these were furnished with luxury and good taste. A closet was filled with wine; the plate was of silver, the napery elegant; a good picture hung upon the walls, a gift (as Utterson supposed) from Henry Jekyll, who was much of a connoisseur; and the carpets were of many plies and agreeable in colour” (Stevenson, 1886, p24).
He may be fulfilling all his desires, but he is seen to have all the taste and refinement of any of those who claim he is a lesser being than they. It is also interesting to note that Utterson supposes that these “good” belongings were a gift from “Jekyll who was much of a connoisseur” and not Hyde himself; could these tastes be a manifestation of Jekyll’s personality. And if so are the two very different after all? Jekyll is more like the animal Hyde than Utterson and others realise. Could it not also be that when they each look upon the grotesque appearance and nature of Hyde that they are seeing something of themselves, or their own nature in him too? Early on Stevenson describes how easily the animalistic nature of anyone can be seen when describing the reactions of those around when Hyde runs down the young girl, who even though she is left pretty much unharmed, turn to animalistic rage.
“I saw that Sawbones turn sick and white with the desire to kill him. I knew what was in his mind, just as he knew what was in mine; and killing being out of the question, we did the next best” (Stevenson, 1886, p8).
This is more over their subconscious reaction to Hyde than the incident itself.
“We were pitching it in red hot, we were keeping the women off him as best we could, for they were as wild as harpies. I never saw a circle of such hateful faces” (Stevenson, 1886, p8).
It is interesting to note that Stevenson also uses the city of London as another way to highlight the idea of the distinct double of Jekyll and Hyde. Like Jekyll and Hyde, London is split into two distinct parts. Jekyll’s London is described as a wealthy and educated middle and upper class community, Utterson comments that it is “that citadel of medicine” (Stevenson, 1886, p12). While in contrast, Hyde’s Soho, is a slum community, the atavistic den, dark and dismal and filled with vice and immoral characters:
“The dismal quarter of Soho seen under these changing glimpses, with its muddy ways, and slatternly passengers, and its lamps, which had never been extinguished or had been kindled afresh to combat this mournful re-invasion of darkness, seemed, in the lawyer’s eyes, like a district of some city in a nightmare”(Stevenson, 1886, p23).
Yet, as we have seen, the lines between duality are blurred, and as we will see, likewise is this idea of London when compared its counterpart of the day.
Not only does Stevenson exploring the ideas of the double in oneself, but he also uses the idea of duality to explore other juxtaposed social issues of the day. He does this through Hyde; Hyde is a metaphor for the fears that Stevenson’s middle class readers felt about their position within society. These fears were extended to both the working class and the aristocracy; Hyde is used as a dichotomy paradigm for both.
With a rapidly evolving society and constant issues between the working and middle class, Victorian society was a capricious union of change and progress. Tempers ran strong with regards to one’s place and the rights of every man. The teachings of Karl Marx brought new ideas and new fears, with enormous concern throughout the middle class that his theories of a proletariat uprising may come to pass.
Through Utterson and Ensfield we are shown that Hyde represents the working class, like the middle class see the working class, Hyde is violent and brutish. We see this through Utterson’s description of Hyde’s dress, “He was small and very plainly dressed” (Stevenson, 1886, p14); as well as by the facts that Hyde lives in a notorious working class part of London. In contrast Jekyll is an up standing doctor and member of middle class society from a reputable wealthy family.
Through Hyde’s connection with the doctor we are able to see the concern that by association the working class has the capability of corrupting and eventually destroying the even the best middle class families, at first, through Utterson’s fears over Hyde’s blackmail of Jekyll, and later over Stevenson’s hints of immoral liaisons between Hyde and Jekyll. Yet always the proletariat Hyde leaves the bourgeois Jekyll ruined. This theme of the proletariat uprising and destroying the middle class can be seen through Hyde murdering Sir Danvers Carew. The animalistic pleasure that is seen through Hyde’s actions is what the middle class feared from those they saw as inferior to them:
“Mr. Hyde broke out of all bounds and clubbed him to the earth. And next moment, with ape-like fury, he was trampling his victim under foot and hailing down a storm of blows, under which the bones were audibly shattered and the body jumped upon the roadway” (Stevenson, 1886, p21).
Alternatively, the reader can also interpret Hyde as a representation of the pleasure seeking and corrupt upper class, who look down on all and do not care who gets hurt as long as their pleasures are fulfilled.
The debauchery of the ruling class was of great concern the new middle class. How could a corrupt class rule over a successful and influential country such as England? These fears were brought to the forefront by the 1889 Cleveland Street (In Soho) homosexual brothel scandals, with rumours circulating that it was visited often by Prince Albert Victor, Queen Victoria’s grandson, as well as other leading upper class figures (Summers, Pebworth, 2006). This scandal appeared only three years after publication of The strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. This connection between Soho and the upper class corruption could have been one that Stevenson and other middle class people were well aware of, even before the Scandal, hence the location of Hyde’s home there and not the poorer east end areas, such as Whitechapel, Spitalfields or Bethnal Green. All of which were famous slum areas.
“[The upper class] are those who by society are held to what can be known as the highest social code, yet the evidence presented shows lower moral value behind closed doors. Then one must ask, what is the psychological effect of being involved with the upper class? Can the fact of being welcomed to many privileges, but not being socially able to indulge, make an individual succumb to secrecy?” (Victorian Scandal, 2012),
We can see these fears of society’s moral decay caused by the overindulgence of the upper class within the text. An example would be Mr Hyde trampling the working class girl without hesitation. Once confronted Hyde does what the reader suspects any wealthy person would and pays off the victim’s family to avoid scandal. This selfish pursuit of desire eventually leads to the implosion of the upper class and the dismissal of morality, with the murder of Sir Danvers Carew, leading to their own downfall. No one is safe from their own greed, not even themselves! Ultimately this lusting for desire leads to the destruction of Hyde and consequently Jekyll by association too.
The clouded idea of the double of Jekyll and Hyde continues to the very end, where Stevenson leaves the reader unsure whose final statement the chapter ‘Henry Jekyll’s full statement of the Case’ is. Stephen Arata notes that with increasing frequency the writer behind the statement switches between personalities. Arata (1996, p52) writes:
“Within the statement the first person shifts referents with notorious frequency. The final few paragraphs contain sentences in which “I” means Jekyll, sentences in which “I” means Hyde, and sentences in which both Jekyll and Hyde are referred to in the third person, leaving an authorial “I” unattached to any self.”
Through The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde we are able to explore several interpretations of the figure of the double to see how Victorian literature used this to explore cultural contradictions and desires. Stevenson employs the idea of the double in Hyde to explore the ideas of class issues and struggles, bringing to life the fears his readers felt towards both the working and middle class. At the same time he purposefully leaves the reader with the blurred reality of Jekyll’s double nature because, like Jekyll and Hyde, the lines of all our natures are blurred. As human beings nothing we do and how we act are as straight forward as we may believe them to be. Through this Stevenson’s words we are given a detailed insight to our own dark nature that leaves the reader to go their “own dark way” (Stevenson, 1886, p33).
Arata, S., (1996) Fictions of Loss in the Victorian Fin de Siècle: Identity and Empire, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, P. 52.
Oxford University Press (2014) Dualism, Available at: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/dualism (Accessed: 20th May 2014).
Padnick, S., (2012) What Everybody Gets Wrong About Jekyll and Hyde, Available at:http://www.tor.com/blogs/2012/06/what-everybody-gets-wrong-about-jekyll-and-hyde (Accessed: 20th May 2014).
Rankin, I., (2010) ‘Ian Rankin on the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, The Guardian, 16th August, Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/aug/16/ian-rankin-dr-jekyll-mr-hyde (Accessed: 20th May 2014).
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