The Suspense and Atmosphere in “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” Essay
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According to the New Edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary, Suspense is defined as being the following:
“Suspense- state of usu. anxious uncertainty or expectation or waiting for information.”
According to that same dictionary, the definition of Atmosphere is the following:
“Atmosphere- mental or moral environment esp. artistic or emotional; pervading tone or mood, esp. attractive one; air (in any place), esp. w. ref. to effects on those present.”
The definition of Setting according to the New Edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary is:
The story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is set in Nineteenth Century London.
Therefore the setting or environment was a largely Victorian one. This would involve the lack of any motorised vehicles and at night gas lamps would light the streets.
London would have had a very defined poverty line, which meant large and noticeable differences between rich and poor. The buildings and streets would be very much in the style as shown below in this picture of Victorian London:
The above picture of Tottenham Court Road, in the late nineteenth century, illustrates very well what the average London street would have looked like at the time of the story. It displays images of a busy, bustling thoroughfare with horses and carts sweeping across it, an image typical of the era.
In the story, Mr Hyde’s residence is said to be in London’s Soho. At that time, this particular area of the city had a very bad reputation for prostitutes, criminals and other undesirables. This is a reflection of the way the reader is encouraged to view Mr Hyde, who himself was an undesirable. It is also representative of the attitude towards what was commonly perceived as an ‘underclass’. Dr Jekyll on the other hand, was a cultured, professional gentleman, and lived in a respectable part of town. It was therefore frowned upon by polite society when he was found to be associating with a ruffian such as Mr Hyde. It was seen as being a very unusual act for someone of the Doctor’s social standing, to mix with an individual who lived in London’s Soho.
The setting of parts of the story in Soho, the underbelly of Victorian London, with its seedy appearance, attractiveness to criminals and home to the disadvantaged, contributes to the generally uneasy atmosphere pervading the story. For example, on pages four and five, Mr Enfield, a lawyer and friend of Jekyll’s, is walking down a prosperous market street. It is pleasant and charming, yet just around the corner, the setting changes, and this has an immediate effect on the atmosphere.
“Two doors from one corner, on the left hand going east, the line was broken by the entry of a court; and just at that point, a certain sinister block of building thrust forward its gable on the street. It was two storeys high; showed no window, nothing but a door on the lower storey and a blind forehead of discoloured wall on the upper; and bore in every feature the marks of prolonged and sordid negligence. The door, which was equipped with neither bell nor knocker, was blistered and distained. Tramps slouched into the recess and struck matches on the panels; children kept shop upon the steps; the schoolboy had tried his knife on the mouldings; and for close on a generation no one had appeared to drive away these random visitors or to repair their ravages.”
The quote I have chosen, illustrates how the setting in which the author chooses to place the action, can affect the reader’s interpretation of the mood of the moment. After reading that passage the atmosphere is immediately intimidating, a feeling reinforced by the thrust of the gable of the building.
The latter takes on the characteristics of a face, personifying its owner with subtle references to human physiology and disfiguration e.g. a (blind) forehead, scars and blisters as can be found on skin, and the door representing a mouth. The tramps and the children are like parasites which are found on unclean bodies and the lack of windows suggests that not only are passers-by prevented from looking inside, but that the occupant of the building cannot or does not want to see out.
These are all strong visual images, deliberately intended by the author, to create an impression in the reader’s mind. In this way, a setting can be used when a writer wants to influence his audience into thinking about a character, event, or location in a certain way.
The weather also plays an important part in the setting of an event. It can be used by the writer to evoke different emotions in the reader: fear, excitement, happiness, unhappiness, suspicion, romance or even relief.
These are all essential elements to create suspense or atmosphere within a story or dialogue.
A good example of this can be found on page fifty-three:
“It was a wild, cold, seasonable night of March, with a pale moon, lying on her back as though the wind had tilted her, and a flying wrack of the most diaphanous and lawny texture. The wind made talking difficult and flecked blood into the face. It seemed to have swept the streets unusually bare of passengers.”
In this case, the weather is a key element of the setting, in particular the wind. The author has used it to emphasise the feeling of being swept brutally along by a powerful force beyond our control. Even the moon itself appears to have tilted and changed its appearance, with the cutting wind inflicting pain on the few pedestrians brave enough to venture abroad.
His deliberate use of the word “passengers” reinforces the feeling for the reader that they too are on a journey travelling into the unknown, where evil and danger lurk. The reader is now filled with foreboding and slight uneasiness due to the unpredictability (like the weather itself) of what might happen next
On page fifty-four, there is another good example of how weather can play a large and important part in the setting of a story, helping to develop a particular atmosphere.
“The square, when they got there, was all full of wind and dust, and the thin trees in the garden were lashing themselves along the railing.”
The reference to the weather is vital to the image of the scene. Suffocating dust pollutes the air and the railings are cage-like, preventing escape. The thin, malnourished trees give the impression that they are punishing themselves, whilst at the same time seeking refuge against the elements. This is indicative of the physical and psychological condition of Dr. Jekyll himself at this point in the story.
A third example of the impact that the weather has on the atmosphere, occurs on pages forty-nine to fifty, when Mr Utterson is on his way to meet Dr Jekyll:
“The court was very cool and a little damp, and full of premature twilight, although the sky, high up overhead, was still bright with sunset.”
This reference to the weather symbolises the split personality of Dr Jekyll. The struggle between the light above and the darkness below, represents the conflict between good and evil. This presents a rather disturbing, image reinforcing our assumption that darkness is likely to prevail. The sinister aspect of this being, that darkness is the absence of light, and goodness.
All through the story we have the impression that something is not quite right. This is reinforced by way of constant references to the weather. There is always something strange and unsettling about it. This is a recurring theme throughout.
The examples above, illustrate how weather as a part of the setting can build up the suspense and atmosphere of a scene, a dialogue or the tensions affecting an individual character.
The writer assumes (successfully) that his use of particular imagery and metaphor will induce certain reactions in his readers e.g. red for danger, darkness for impending doom etc. He does this to almost manipulate the reader into thinking about events or people in a way that enables him to build up the atmosphere and suspense within the story.
Another example of this can be found on page thirty-two, when Mr Utterson is walking across the streets of Soho:
“The dismal quarter of Soho seen under the 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.”
The writer cleverly describes the streets of Soho so that the reader immediately feels a sense of disapproval for not only the neglected appearance of the place but also its unkempt inhabitants (including the infamous Mr Hyde). His use of the word “mournful” to describe nightfall evokes an unpleasant feeling that bad things may happen under the cover of darkness. Not only Mr Utterson experiences the “nightmare” scenario but the reader too can identify with his need to escape and awake from danger.
However, Robert Louis Stevenson does not always use the setting to create an unpleasant atmosphere. For instance on page one hundred and three, when describing a moment of clarity for Dr Jekyll, he uses it to create a somewhat uplifting atmosphere.
“I was stepping leisurely across the court after breakfast, drinking the chill of the air with pleasure,”
When using the word “chill” the writer evokes a feeling of clarity within the reader, a clarity that Dr Jekyll himself is momentarily experiencing. This creates, if but shortly, an atmosphere of hope and some relief. It represents a sort of snap back to reality for the reader as well as Dr Jekyll.
Mostly I have discussed how the setting has affected the atmosphere within the story, in order to evoke specific emotions within the reader. Suspense however is an emotion within itself and I will now look at how the setting directly affects the suspense in the story.
This can be found at many points within the book, as it is a very exciting and captivating story. On page fifty-six for instance when Poole knocks on the cabinet door to inform Dr Jekyll that Mr Utterson wishes to speak to him. The Author talks about,
“the red baize of the cabinet door.”
Red is a classically forbidding colour. It is a psychological message to the reader, implying that whatever or whomever is in there, does not want to be seen or disturbed.
Red can also be a colour that is associated with the Devil. Coincidentally, the cabinet (for Dr Jekyll and those that know him) is also associated with evil, as this is the place where he retires to whenever strange things start happening. This all helps to create suspense, and the reader wonders what awful things are behind that door, and what it is hiding?
The use of these kinds of allegories build up tension and adds some mystery to the story, thus making the reader want to continue in order to find out what happens.
All these elements, the weather, the buildings, the colours and the people, play a vital part in the setting of a scene or event. The examples that I have given, demonstrate that all of these factors can play a role in creating the atmosphere and suspense within a story.
Certain word combinations can cause the reader to experience many different emotions. Therefore by using these word combinations, the writer can encourage the reader to think what he or she wants them to think.
In this way atmosphere and suspense are intentionally created through the setting, to suit what the writer wants the reader to think. In the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, these methods have proved to be essential to developing the storyline.
Therefore I can successfully conclude that the setting in the story of “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” contributes to the atmosphere and suspense in a major and very effective way.