In this essay I will be exploring the ways in which Robert Louis Stevenson portrays and reflects the society into which his novelette, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was initially introduced.
To do this I will explore setting, language and form within the novel. There are also a number of themes and ideals that I will also discuss Gothic Literary Tradition, Victorian Science, duality, hypocrisy and Victorian concepts of virtue and vice.
Many of the characters in “Jekyll and Hyde” show two sides to their personality. This duality is shown in their spotless and respected public face that contradicts their despicable behaviour in private. Possibly the most obvious example of this is seen where Sir Danvers Carew, a respectable MP and gentleman, seemingly a perfect person in Victorian society, is seen and killed whilst in Soho. At the time, Soho was a very undesirable area of London where respectable men were not expected to be, at an unusual time of the night. The lateness of his visit there suggests that he was doing something that he didn’t want his friends or anyone from his social circle to see, probably something deviant.
Soho was a haven for drug dealers, drug users, prostitutes, all types of crime and very poor people. This is reflective of a common situation that was seen in the late eighteen hundreds. It would have been a shocking and unthought-of of idea to discuss this concept openly at the time the book was written, however, as it would make those who carried out deviant acts feel scrutinised and less safe. As if their secret was being made public. This is a very innovative and original reflection of a Victorian situation that was commonplace yet underground.
We see more of this social situation when Jekyll himself explains that, as Hyde, he could perform acts that in his normal form he could not. His social standing would prohibit such behaviour and yet he felt compelled to act in this way. Conscious within Hyde and free from social expectations, he gained a sickening sense of satisfaction, remorselessness and enjoyment when he acted upon his suppressed evil longings. Or, at least, at first he did. A sentiment shown in his statement of the case where he points to, “secret pleasures, that I had enjoyed in the disguise of Hyde.” This explains that, owing to his social standing being rather high and respectable, he could not act upon certain longings, but, as Hyde, an unrespected nobody, he could. This was a similar, if more extreme, version of a situation that society at the time forced many respectable people into.
Obviously nobody had two separate appearances and personalities, in a literal sense, but some had a public face and life and a private one. Expectation was very high amongst people from respectable social positions and classes. There was no room for misbehaving. It is suggested that social expectation indirectly resulted in the birth of Hyde, as the potion to turn Jekyll into Hyde was formulated in order to separate good from evil. Social expectation was satisfied by Jekyll as the focus was on the good things. As Hyde, a separate persona, he could be evil without the worry of social pressure and reputation. Jekyll says:
“If each, I told myself, could but be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfast, and securely on his upright path”
The duality shown in so many of the characters shows the inherent hypocrisy in Victorian society in which people had an open, public life and a secret life that only took place where the person was not available to come under scrutiny from their society or class. This is a display of the Victorian social mindset that appearances account for almost everything. So any deviancy or misbehavior could only be conducted in secret where that no one would know. The Victorians’ are shown to be willing to disregard, ignore and remain uninvolved in unpleasant things at the danger of falling from grace. This is a form of hypocrisy which is well shown where Mr. Enfield says, “I make it a rule of mine: the more something looks like Queer Street the less I ask,” to which the reply from Mr. Utterson is, ” A very good rule, too.”
This shows the desperation of people to save face and maintain a facade of perfection and decency in order to agree with and remain in favor of Victorian social expectations. This explains the importance of a reputation of decency and gallantry in the Victorian society in which the book was published. The idea of reputation being essential is used as a tool to scare and warn Hyde in the first chapter of the book. Enfield explains, “Killing being out of the question, we did the next best. We told the man we could and would make a scandal out of this, as should make his name stink from one end of London to the other.
If he had any friends or any credit, we undertook that he should lose them.” The fact that ruining his reputation was regarded as the next best thing to killing him emphasizes the importance of this to Victorian society. Another display of the importance of reputation occurs at the end of the book where Poole and Utterson are breaking down the door to Jekyll’s cabinet and Jekyll forces Hyde to kill himself. It shows the extreme measures that Jekyll will take: he would rather be dead than tarnish his good reputation by letting his secret escape. This is a starkly shocking reminder of the importance of a reputation in Victorian high society.
Victorian concepts of virtue and vice are discussed throughout the book. There was a set belief amongst the higher ranks of society that a malicious or evil nature in a person should be hidden and suppressed beneath the good features. This is explored through Jekyll and Hyde as Jekyll and Hyde are supposed to be the good and evil sides to Jekyll’s personality.
So that Jekyll can safely release his suppressed evil through the form of Hyde. He could do this without coming under scrutiny from the society around him. He says “secret pleasures, that I had enjoyed in the disguise of Hyde.” Danvers Carew is another example of this as we see him in the area of Soho, despite his respectable faï¿½ade. This may be because he is secretly acting upon the evil longings that he must suppress for most of the time, due the social expectations of a man in his position
Another way that Stevenson explores Victorian society is through its science. At the time of the publication of the book, one new scientific theory was the Darwinian theory of evolution. This is explored in the book. Many Victorians believed that criminals were less evolved than normal people; they were thought to be a throwback from humanity’s primitive past. Hyde, the criminal, is often described as being similar to an animal and less evolved. Specifically, he is described as being “ape-like” in his fury. Mr. Utterson says, “The man seems hardly human! Something troglodytic.” This implies he is primitive and less evolved. When Poole and Utterson are breaking into Jekyll’s cabinet Hyde emits, “A dismal screech, as of mere animal terror.” Again, animal-like traits are highlighted.
Gothic Literary Traditions from the time period of the publication of the book are also important when we are discussing its storyline and themes. They were traditions that were commonplace in novels of the time. There were set rules and patterns. There is the idea of the gothic “monster” which was very common at the time, which takes the form of Hyde in this case. There was also the typical atmosphere of darkness and secrecy and unnatural forces at work. This is exemplified in the novel by the dingy and dark setting. For example, Stevenson says that there were heavy “pea souper” fogs and much of the story occurs at nighttime in eerie locations such as the run-down Soho area. This draws from real life because there were real “pea soupers” and the area of Soho was extremely undesirable and dingy.
Also the fact that most of the evil occurs at nighttime is, to an extent, a reflection of Victorian reality, as the only time when respected people would be somewhere undesirable or acting upon “evil” desires would have been at night, under the cover of darkness. Hyde’s house has no windows and a single door, so is ominous, dark and secretive, with no means of an outsider being able to view what lies beyond its walls.! Another secretive technique is that the monster, Hyde, is never described in great detail. Hyde is only ever described vaguely; his “unexpressed deformity” is a clear indication that Stevenson is conscious of the vagueness of his description.
We also never see the story from his direct perspective, so his point of view is hidden which adds to the secrecy of the book. There is also the idea of Hyde’s house being a lair, shown in the form of the cabinet and laboratory that add to the secrecy and is another common technique in gothic texts. Stevenson uses these traditional ideas; however, he does so in a subtle way with far less crudeness than in other books, such as Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Hyde is not literally called a monster and is, after all, human. It is the actions and nature of the character that make him the monster.
Stevenson’s use of language helps to explore the Victorian culture that the book was written in. He uses them to add to and invoke some of the Gothic Literary Traditions in his book. Stevenson describes Jekyll in a lot of detail saying that he is handsome, respected and a gentleman. However, Hyde is given very vague and non specific descriptions which add to the secrecy of the character that is, reverting to Gothic tradition, the “monster” character. Here we see a perfect display of this technique;
“He is not easy to describe. 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 sense 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 is not want of memory, for I declare I can see him this moment.”
By giving a vague, sketchy description Stevenson separates Hyde from other main characters that are described in detail, by almost de-humanizing him. This adds to the sense that Hyde is the traditional monster character, which is a tool used in Victorian writing.
Setting is also used by Stevenson to draw on gothic tradition and gives an eerie yet sometimes truthful view of London. The way in which Stevenson describes the lodgings of Jekyll and Hyde is a use of language that adds to the gothic literary tradition. Jekyll’s house is in a very upper class area and is decorated and furnished with great taste and wealth. Whereas Hyde lives in a very rough area, Soho and his house is a dark, seedy place with no windows and a solitary door.!! This surrounds this character, the monster, with secrecy and shields him from the outside world. It creates an ominous, tense atmosphere, which was often used in gothic texts of the era.
Also the places in the book where evil occurs are described as foggy and dingy. And the majority of the story occurs at night. This adds to the darkness and secrecy of the gothic novelette. A point that is further reinforced by the secrecy that shroud the lodgings of Jekyll and Hyde. Contemporary London is portrayed as having an outwardly respectable veneer of goodness that disguised a dangerous and immoral undercurrent, the hiding place for much evil. This was to an extent actually true of Victorian London; it had respectable areas but was quite a seedy place. As an example there was the notorious Jack the Ripper, who killed prostitutes in London in the Victorian era at night in back alleys and brothels and was suspected to have been a respected politician or businessman by day. This links in with the idea of Victorians often leading double lives: good in the day and bad at night.
The structure and form of the book emphasize the gothic traditions that Stevenson draws. The book is written from Mr. Utterson’s perspective with narratives and interjections from other characters, such as “Dr. Jekyll’s Full Statement of the Case”; however, importantly Hyde’s opinion is omitted. This heightens the shroud of secrecy and depravity that surrounds Hyde, the “monster.” This technique was common in Gothic novels of the time. It adds tension and terror to the novels by keeping the reader deprived of knowledge.
To this we can link the reaction of the contemporary reader to this story. The reader would recognize much reality in the book. They would see truths from the time. For example, the pressures of society would be familiar. Some may be shocked or slightly uncomfortable when reading it, because the ideas of living double lives and suppressing evil and acting upon it in privacy, would have rung true of some readers. To discuss this in the open would have been out of the question and may have put certain individuals in an extremely uncomfortable spotlight. As was discussed earlier in the essay there was a clear Victorian mentality that reputation was very important, possibly the most important thing to some individuals. So some may have had private feelings and longings and may have acted upon these in private. On seeing this in the book, Sir Danvers Carew’s situation for example, it may have felt to them as though they were no longer safe to have a sinful private life as people new that this sort of thing happened.
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In conclusion I think that the book is a fairly truthful reflection of many aspects of Victorian society and culture, especially the idea of living a double life. I also think that Stevenson’s use of Gothic Literary tradition is effective. In the novelette, he provides a new variation on traditional themes. All in all, I think that Stevenson employs a high level of reality and supplements this by drawing from the literary culture of the Victorian Britain of which he was a part.