How Stevenson Uses Descriptions of Scenery
How Stevenson Uses Descriptions of Scenery
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson was first published in 1886. The themes involved in Stevenson’s novella, good and evil, the primal, animal side of human nature, morality, shocked its strict, righteous Victorian audience. The Victorian society was intent on repressing thought and behaviour that could be considered animal. At least, this was the culture on the surface; taking a look into the underground society shows the immediate balancing side to the strict and proper society. In the repression of natural instincts such as open sensuality and freedom to experience life, society bred a deep fascination in the indulgence of the senses and instincts, creating a secret world of prostitution and indulgence in sex and drug use.
Jekyll and Hyde’s contemporary society was going through a time of a scientific revolution that terrified them, Darwin had recently come up with his theory of evolution, and the thought that there could be something (science) that could prove that humans were in fact come from beasts, threw the religious beliefs and sense of moral right and wrong of the society. In Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Stevenson put into fiction, there for everybody to read, society’s deepest fear: that man was evolved from a primitive animal and had, and would, succumb to, those instincts.
Stevenson uses very evocative language, captivating adjectives and metaphors all designed to paint a picture that draws the reader into the atmospheric world in which the story takes place. “Mr Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance, that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow loveable.” “tonight there was shudder in his [Enfield] blood; the face of Hyde sat heavy on his memory; he felt (which was rare with him) a nausea and distaste of life; and in the gloom of his spirits, he seemed to read a menace in the flickering of the firelight on the polished cabinets and the uneasy starting of the shadow on the roof”.
This, the reader being more involved in the world of Jekyll and Hyde, brings about, subconsciously, in the reader a different approach to judgement of the characters. All the actions that the characters make and the descriptions that Stevenson gives of them, affect the reader as more directly and personally, because they have been drawn in to be emotionally involved in the story themselves. The language Stevenson uses is also very flowing language, with rhythms that have a sense of ease to read and that are almost poetic in feel. [Enfield] “I was coming home form some place at the end of the world, about three o’clock of a black winter morning, and my way lay through a part of town where there was literally nothing to be seen but lamps.
Street after street, and all the folks sleep – street after street, all lighted up as if for a procession, and all as empty as a church”. This piece of monologue, spoken by Enfield to Utterson, demonstrates the beautiful flow that Stevenson has in his writing and his use of vivid imagery and alliteration and assonance to paint the pictures in a similar way to authors of poetry. This is what increases the dramatic effect of the story; because the reader is emotionally drawn in and their imaginations are fuelled by the atmospheric descriptions the story has a bigger impact on them.
The audience’s first introduction to Mr Hyde is through Enfield’s narration to Mr Utterson of the story of how he first encountered Hyde. Enfield’s story starts with a strong sense of mystery “Did you ever remark that door? It is connected in my mind, with a very odd story.” This immediately draws the reader in with curiosity, wanting to find out what odd story could possibly be attached to the image of the door. Stevenson’s earlier detailed description of the door, calling it “blistered and distained”, saying “tramps slouched into the recess” and that no one had cared enough to repair it, sets the scene for Enfield’s story about the undesirable Mr Hyde.
When studied, these adjectives and descriptions that Stevenson uses in the build up to Hyde’s appearance all subconsciously put the reader in a negative mindset, having been presented with a list of unpleasant things then presented with Hyde, whom they have yet to know anything to judge him on, they are already viewing the scene with negative judgement. So as the reader meets Mr Hyde for the first time, in Enfield’s story, they are open to Enfield’s disgusted impression of him and take it immediately on as their own impression because subconsciously the logical judgement to make of something in such horrible surroundings as they have been presented with is that it will also be equally undesirable.
The reader experiences the story of Jekyll and Hyde through Mr Utterson, only hearing and seeing what he hears and sees. Therefore the reader is naturally of the opinion that the impression Mr Utterson gets of Hyde will be the most clear and important to them making their own judgement on him. When Utterson meets Hyde it is the closest thing the reader gets to a first hand impression of him. Stevenson describes the scene of Utterson’s meeting with Hyde as, “a fine dry night; frost in the air, the streets as clean as a ballroom floor.”
And “in spite of the low growl of London from all round, very silent.” These small excerpts of his evocative description of the scene already set the reader into an almost defensive mood as Hyde approaches, Stevenson gives the reader the kind of signals (crisp air, a sense of alertness, oppressive silence, a sense of foreboding) that instinctively causes the reader to tense, wary of any character that should enter now with any aggression; which then, Mr Hyde does, “That is my name. What do you want?” spoken forcefully, and “How did you know me?” spoken very suspiciously.
The first time the reader meets Dr Jekyll is in chapter 3, at the end of a dinner given by Dr Jekyll, as Mr Utterson asks him about his will and about Mr Hyde, fearing that his friend is being blackmailed by Mr Hyde. Stevenson introduces that “hosts”, implying Jekyll, liked to be in the company of Utterson after others had left, saying that Utterson is “unobtrusive”, and sets the scene as the pair sit on either side of the fire and says that Jekyll “cherished for Mr Utterson a sincere and warm affection”. This introduction contrasts strongly with the introduction the audience gets to Mr Hyde; it gives the impression of a comfortable, easy-going, genuine friendship between Mr Utterson and Dr Jekyll through gentle, positive, warm phrases such as “rich silence”, “pleasant dinner”, “they liked to sit awhile in his unobtrusive company” (implying they being Jekyll and he being Utterson), and, about Jekyll, “every mark of capacity and kindness”.
This makes the reader very aware of the fact that it must be a serious subject, that or Mr Hyde, to cause stress in a conversation between two friends with a relationship that flows so easily as theirs does. This causes the reader to be very conscious of the shift in the tone of the conversation as soon as Utterson brings up the subject of Hyde. This technique that Stevenson uses to add a sense of darkness to Hyde’s nature, as it darkens the conversation between Jekyll and Utterson – “The large handsome face of Dr Jekyll grew pale to the very lips, and there came a blackness about his eyes”, is very effective in doing just that, mostly because of the descriptiveness with which Stevenson expresses the mood and atmosphere in the room during the conversation.
The beginning of chapter 4 is a perfect example of the strong, stimulating images Stevenson brings to the reader through his subtly atmospherically suggestive use of description. He first hints at the type of person the maid reciting her story is, telling us as readers that she is probably over-dramatic and prone to romanticizing a story. The words Stevenson has the maid use conjure up the scene “an aged and beautiful gentleman with white hair” and “advancing to meet him, another very small gentleman”. The adjectives used to describe Carew portray him as an upright, respected, sincere man. The way Stevenson contrasts Carew “drawing near” and Hyde “advancing” paints the picture of the menace in Hyde’s character. Throughout the story of Hyde and Carew Stevenson uses contrast, side by side sentences about Carew and Hyde which brings to the story the impression of it being shocking.
To hear “the moon shone on his face as he spoke, and the girl was pleased to watch it, it seemed to breathe such an innocent and old-world kindness of disposition” followed by “He [Hyde] had in his hand a heavy cane, with which he was trifling; but he answered never a word, and seemed to listen with ill-contained impatience” makes the ominous description of Hyde’s actions have a greater weight. Stevenson uses the same technique again a little later with “The old gentleman took a step back, with the air of one very much surprised and a trifle hurt; and at that Mr Hyde broke out of all bounds, and clubbed him to the earth.”
The statement on Hyde has a sense of horror and finality to it following the innocence of Carew, due tothe language used, and the following description of Hyde’s next actions “And the next moment, with ape-like fry, he was trampling his victim under foot” comes with the impression of inhuman cruelty because it is added on to such a final sounding statement and the words such as “ape-like” and “trampling” give the sense of wild, out of control behaviour. The reader relates these actions to the instinctive actions of an animal, and in the Victorian society in which this was set, that came with a great cloud of fear, that science (the drug Dr Jekyll creates) could bring about the release of an inner beast in man.
All of these are instances where the rhythm of words and the words Stevenson uses builds up, and produces a vivid picture of the scene. This makes The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde an intriguing book to read, as Stevenson successfully captures the atmosphere and portrays it fairly simply and eloquently through evocative language to the reader, involving them in the story.
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is still a captivating read even these days because it is still relevant. The theme of the duality of human nature that is the key to the story is still a subject that intrigues people to this day. Stevenson uses the dynamic descriptions of the scenes to manipulate the reader into subconsciously comparing the characters of Jekyll and Hyde even before they know that they are two sides of the same person. In chapter 4 Stevenson describes the maid who recounts her tale of Hyde murdering Carew: “she sat down on her box, which stood immediately under the window” which puts the reader into the scene, watching through the maid’s eyes through the window as the depth of Hyde’s manic, cruel nature is revealed. The key thing to note is that the reader is experiencing this with the view of Hyde’s character, if you like, framed by the window.
In chapter 7 Utterson and Enfield are taking their walk together when they encounter Jekyll: “the middle one of the three windows was halfway open; and sitting close beside it, taking the air with an infinite sadness of mien, like some disconsolate prisoner, Utterson saw Dr Jekyll.” This is a clear picture of Jekyll, troubled after realizing how out of control Hyde is, grieving as he realizes how he can no longer control whether he is Jekyll or Hyde, and the reader views the picture through the frame of the window through Utterson’s eyes. This is an example of how Stevenson encourages the reader to subconsciously take the images they are presented with that reveal Jekyll and Hyde’s characters and look at them side by side with the same objectiveness, through the window for example, to compare them.
In comparison with the use of subconscious manipulation, Stevenson also creates a clear and obvious opportunity for the reader to consciously enter into the story through paying the part of detective; the way Stevenson sets out the story, hinting at the outcome the whole way through and only revealing the truth in Dr Jekyll’s concluding letter at the very end, presents the story as a mystery for the reader to solve. The difference in the ways Stevenson presents the hints that the reader will consciously or unconsciously receive is that the conscious ones are mostly conveyed to the reader through a question asked by one of the characters, particularly Utterson and the unconscious ones are often presented in the symbolism or metaphor hidden in the way Stevenson words a sentence.
For example – the sense of mystery in brought to the forefront of the story as a theme when the reader starts to realize that Jekyll is inexplicably attached to Hyde, and that he cares a lot that Utterson, at least, should make sure that he would receive decent treatment and get his rights (to Jekyll’s possessions mostly) should Jekyll be “taken away”. “I do sincerely take great interest in that young man; and if I am taken away, Utterson, I wish you to promise me that you will bear with him and get his rights for him. I think you would, if you knew all;” This quote shows the point where the reader distinctly notices the mystery they are being presented with, and realizes that they must take note of any clues that Stevenson might give to them. There is an obvious feeling of suspense ad tension left by the last sentence; it carries dramatic weight and a sense that, at some point, all will be revealed.
This has both a conscious and a subconscious effect on the reader; the conscious being the clear sense of suspense left by the dramatic statement, and the subconscious being the way Stevenson has used the sense of suspense and the idea that all will be revealed to put a kind of pressure on the reader to solve the mystery before it is solved for them. This is the point in the story that, in a way, the clock starts counting down; the reader has been challenged and the tension can only build from this point on. An example of Stevenson’s use of symbolism to give subconscious hints at the answer to the mystery would be in chapter 4 when Jekyll has broken back into Hyde and Hyde has become uncontrollable and brutally murdered Carew.
Stevenson describes the scene, Soho, as Utterson drives the police officer investigating to Hyde’s house and uses the city to symbolize Jekyll/Hyde – “for a moment, the fog would be quite broken up, and a haggard shaft of daylight would glance in between the swirling wreaths” This, the reader can see on reflection, is symbolizing that the darkness and evil of Hyde (the fog) is sometimes broken and beaten by the light and good of Jekyll (the daylight). But in the description of the city, as a metaphor for Jekyll and Hyde, Stevenson presents it with a definite sense of the light fighting an ultimately losing battle; he speaks about the streetlamps saying they “had been kindled afresh to combat this mournful reinvasion of darkness”.
This excerpt is a prime example of the very subtle way that Stevenson gives the reader the subconscious hints. It is only through looking back and studying the wording closely that the reader can see the subtext in his words; the key being in the word “reinvasion”. Stevenson carefully chooses his words to affect the reader by causing them to subconsciously link the words to another image – “reinvasion” implies that the darkness/fog (Hyde) has – and will continue to – come back again and again just as strong and powerful. This level of subtlety in Stevenson’s writing is what helps the story to succeed in its aim of drawing the reader into the dark mystery to such a personal extent.
The way that Stevenson concludes his fictional exploration of the duality of human nature, showing that it is not possible to separate the two sides and keep them both satisfied, would, at the time it was written, possibly have unsettled society even more than if he had concluded it that man could separate his animal side successfully; because it meant that every person had within them that other being that could not always easily be distinguished, subdued and suppressed. That is what makes The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde so alluring, the easily realistic unpredictability of the nature of man, being a free thinking being; this is also what differentiates this story and its contemporaries, because they were written at a time of an explosion into modern thinking and a modern view of the world.
Subject: Robert Louis Stevenson,
University/College: University of Arkansas System
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 30 October 2016
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