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Doris Lessing’s ‘To Room Nineteen’ and ‘Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ by Robert Louis Stevenson Essay

The concept of Simone de Beauvoir’s myth of women discussed in ‘The Second Sex’ was still very much prevalent in the 1960s when ‘To Room nineteen’ was set and certainly at the time of ‘Strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’. In the 1960s, in accordance with the second wave of feminism, women were thought to be more conscious and aware of their rights as a woman because of the media (Hanisch)1 and this is what we, as a reader could easily deduce from the beginning of Doris Lessing’s ‘To room nineteen’. This new- found consciousness however some would argue was not the case during the 1960s and is certainly not the case in the text.

‘The Strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ is a male dominated thriller where female instabilities are never exposed as females are hardly ever mentioned (Shuo and Dan, 2012)2. This Victorian marginalization of women was very common at the time and also links to woman being classified, according to Simone de Beauvoir in ‘The Second Sex’ as the ‘Other’ (de Beauvoir, 1949 p. 16)3 and not worthy of being the subject of the novella. Both texts involve the notion of a demon taking over the main character, whether this demon is a result of their own creation or a result of society. The following essay will attempt to draw similarities and differences between the two texts in relation to Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’.

‘The Second Sex’ is arguably one of the earliest attempts to tackle human history from a feminist perspective4 and expresses the idea that men fundamentally oppress women by characterizing them as the ‘Other’. It states, ‘the moment when man asserts himself as subject and a free being, the idea of ‘Other’ arises (de Beauvoir, 1949 p. 19). Although in ‘To Room Nineteen’ it would appear that both Susan and Matthew are making a joint, educated decision by Susan quitting her job to raise the children and tend to her house, it appears to be more of a decision according to social expectations instead of what Susan really wants. Without a second thought ‘Susan became pregnant […] gave up her job, and they bought a house in Richmond’.

This sentence structurally is placed in the middle of a paragraph, not at the end or in a paragraph of it’s own. This would suggest that it is not a big decision that involves careful thought and planning but more something that was decided because it was the obvious decision. Susan made a ‘concession to popular decision’ or a decision that was implied by society to quit her job and a decision implied by society for Matthew to stay at work and earn an income to support the family. According to de Beauvoir, by Susan accepting her role as ‘Other’ this denies a great deal of her humanity thus culminating in her depression, hallucinations and eventual suicide.

In ‘Strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ as there is a distinct lack of female characters, this would imply that the males have taken the role of the ‘subject’ (de Beauvoir, 1949 p. 19) and free being as the Victorian culture would dictate. This would naturally then make the very few female characters mentioned in the novella assume the role of the object; constrained by the dominant male characters and being a type of humble, counterpart to males 5. The first mention of a female in the novella is the little girl that gets trampled.

Enfield describes this encounter as “natural” (Stevenson, 1886 p. 9), which we as an audience know would clearly not be the case. The way in which Enfield blindly denies that this encounter was no accident highlights the solidarity of men 6and accentuates their power over helpless female characters. The little girl doesn’t come to great harm however does depend on others to help her this is because she is the ‘other’ (de Beauvoir, 1949); she is essentially seen as feeble and evil because men are unable to visualize themselves as such.

The character of Susan, in ‘To room nineteen’ although seemingly independent and equal at the beginning of the text, becomes completely dependent towards the end. She relies on Matthew for comfort when she isn’t feeling herself and she eventually relies on him to give her the money so that she can rent out a room in a hotel; room nineteen. ‘She only had to run across and fling herself into them, onto his hard, warm chest, and melt into herself, into Susan’. This shows how Susan relies on Matthew to feel herself, without him she feels like a stranger: soulless, nothing. ‘She cannot think of herself without man” (de Beauvoir, 1949 p.16). At this point however she feels too distant from him that that place in his arms isn’t hers any longer and she eventually feels like ‘[…] an imposter’.

In addition, although being dependant on Matthew, Susan is given the freedom to essentially do what she wants. Matthew gives her the money for the room, allows them to have an au pair girl and is even accepting of Susan’s fabricated lover. This would, at the surface go against de Beauvoir’s view of the ‘Other’ being a person who is not free. On closer examination however this statement seems to be fundamentally flawed. To Susan, even when alone in the house with Mrs. Parkes, she still feels a certain restraint and unavoidable attachment to her life and worries. When she first rents room nineteen, the texts quotes ‘She was alone. She was alone.

She was alone.’ The repetition of this highlights how unhappy she is around the distractions and obligations of real, family life. It also points out how women, without the input of men can be completely happy without them, by themselves. In this text however Susan obviously cannot find complete happiness as she is tied to her family and tied to the cultural expectations of the time. When she talks to Miss. Townsend she conveys genuine jealousy and want for a life in solitude, ‘I wish I was absolutely alone in the world, like you’. This draws on the traditional objective in life to marry and have children not actually being the ideal for some women. In fact, being alone for Susan is the ideal and what we can note from this is even today, this can be the ideal for other women too.

Matthew would be seen to have freedom and is definitely not concerned with conforming to social expectations when he so openly discusses his affairs. This may be because his role as a man dictates that he can behave how he likes and other woman, as they are the ‘Other’ (de Beauvoir, 1949), will not question him. When Susan questions as to why Matthew does not feel the same depression as her it states,

‘The good marriage, the house, the children, depended just as much on his voluntary bondage as it did on hers. But why did he not feel bound?’

This could arguably be because there is an unspoken pressure on Susan, as a woman from society, which is unknown to the couple. This makes all choices, seemingly decided by them both, actually decided by society. This unknown pressure on Susan is why Matthew doesn’t feel bound.

The idea of freedom is also prevalent in ‘Strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’. If the women detailed in the novella are of low social status, thus assuming the role of the object and other which is limited and oppressed then arguably Dr. Jekyll should be completely free and not restrained by these classifications. The monster that is Mr. Hyde however slowly takes over Dr. Jekyll until he is no more and nothing but the monster that remains. ‘This brief condescension to my evil finally destroyed the balance of my soul’, marks the point where Dr. Jekyll knows that the monster will soon completely take over and thus Dr. Jekyll will no longer have any control or freedom over his body and over his actions.

The novella describes the duality of man and not the duality of women. The Victorian era in which it was written would suggest that this is because women are just pleasing objects to be viewed and do not have a complex nature about them; they are submissive creatures that will adhere to the role that men give them and are essentially unsophisticated. De Beauvoir states a woman’s function is, ‘simply what man decrees; thus she is called the sex’ (de Beauvoir, 1949 p. 16) by which we can deduce that in terms of the novella, the female characters are only there to serve the men, not having a brain of their own and to be complacent in all aspects of their lives.

This quotation also has sexual connotations. If women are called ‘the sex’ then this could mean that women appear to men, chiefly as sexual beings. De Beauvoir states that there ‘is an absolute human type, the masculine. Woman has ovaries, a uterus; these peculiarities imprison her in subjectivity, circumscribe her within the limits of her own nature’, (de Beauvoir, 1949, p.15) meaning that women are discriminated against because of their sexual organs which, through physical and hormonal differentiation paves the way for female oppression. The character of Susan in ‘To room nineteen’ towards the end of the text doesn’t feel like a woman any longer. On thinking about when all of her children are ‘off her hands’ during school term it states, ‘She would turn herself back into being a woman with a life of her own’. Her having children and her using her reproductive organs to produce children makes her feel like that is all she is; a mother, a womb but not a woman (de Beauvoir, 1949 p. 13).

If having children then for Susan means that you are not a woman then this does pose the reader with the question, ‘what makes a woman?’ De Beauvoir states, ‘One is not born but rather becomes a woman’ (de Beauvoir, 1949). For Susan, this could mean that the qualities of a woman are not innate but rather learned either from society or from oneself. De Beauvoir believes that all beings have the right to define themselves however for Susan this seems to already have been done for her by society even though she appears seemingly free. Her decisions are always in accordance to society’s expectations. She wants desperately to become the woman that she was before she quit her job and had children however this is impossible for her, resulting in the loss of her voice as a character and the physical loss in voice from her suicide.

This idea of voice is important, as although Susan is the main character of the text and her feelings and attitudes are foregrounded, this is not the case in her communication with others. She feels like she needs to lie to almost every other character in the text, most probably because she feels like her thoughts are too different than the social norm to be voiced. When Matthew knows that Susan is hiding something, Susan

‘[…] Understood that he hoped she did have a lover, he was begging her to say so, because otherwise it would be too terrifying’.

This highlights how isolated she is feeling. Like the demon that eventually takes over Dr. Jekyll, a devil takes over Susan and she feels like her once loving, equal partner who she so carefully waiting longer than her friends to marry is now someone who she fears will ridicule her and be unaccepting of the devil voice that slowly takes over her. Lessing describes Susan’s devil as being ‘perhaps a middle-aged man pretending to be young’. The characterization of the devil being a man, could be seen as a metaphor for the males and men in society, although not voicing their opinions out loud any more, their views have become rooted in women’s minds thus again highlighting this unspoken pressure. The comparison to the devil being a ‘middle-aged man pretending to be young’ could suggest how even though women’s suffrage is moving forward and men are becoming more accepting of woman’s rights, they are always going to have the slightly discriminative view of the older generation as they have been raised on these views.

It could be suggested that it is the lack of a significant female voice in ‘Strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ that drives men to become their dark side. Thus, Stevenson deliberately decided to foreground the voice of men and leave out any major details about the female characters. The novella ultimately illuminates the instabilities of men, which, in turn, highlights the stabilities of women. It was not a woman that led to the eventual downfall of Dr. Jekyll it was the monster that the man created or the monster that was always a part of the man.

On the surface, ‘To Room Nineteen’ tells the story of an unfulfilled woman in 1960s suburbia and ‘Strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ deals with issues about the duality of man, without mention of women however as previously stated there are deeper issues entailed in both. Both texts deal with the problems surrounding female identity and voice and the consequences when this voice isn’t expressed. ‘To Room Nineteen’, being written by a woman, questions the voice of women by letting the reader know her inner thoughts but not letting other characters know them. ‘Strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ being written by a man cleverly underlines the questions around the position of women in society by hardly including them in the novella at all which was very common for literature in the Victorian culture.

Both use different techniques however it could be argued that the main idea that can be taken from a feminist reading of these texts is that in order for equality of genders to progress and for females to be content, they must not allow their feelings to be suppressed by individuals or society as a whole. The characters in both texts choose to ignore the suppression of women and Simone de Beauvoir in ‘The Second Sex’ chooses to bring them to our attention. In order to maintain a healthy and balanced existence, men and woman need to be equal and not be classed as the ‘other’ or the ‘object’. Without this, men and women are destined to fail.

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