What do we learn of Victorian London and society from Stevenson’s story? Essay
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In “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”, Robert Louis Stevenson describes life in London during the 1880s, the later half of the Victorian period. During that time, society was sharply divided into distinct social classes and their corresponding communities. Very few districts were truly public in the sense that people could move in and out of them with ease. Generally, people were uncomfortable and often unwelcome in parts of town that were not inhabited by their own social group.
To avoid wandering into an unknown area, most Londoners stayed in their own neighbourhoods. This geographical and social fragmentation is an essential part of the setting of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Throughout the whole novel Stevenson describes the scene by telling us that it is foggy because of the huge amounts of pollution. He describes the smog as a ” great chocolate coloured pall lowered over heaven”. He also tells us the face of the city moon is ‘fogged’ and that it was windy. These are all unpleasant characteristics that make London seem more mysterious.
The first thing we are told of London is of Dr Jekyll’s backdoor. Dr. Jekyll lived in the low-class area of London even though he was a high class, respected gentleman with a good education and an excellent education. We are told that the neighbourhood was ‘dingy’. The main part of this description was about the door. His door is described as ‘blister and distained’ giving a sense that even the doors are less attractive in a ‘run-down’ area. We are told that ‘tramps’ lived in the area and all kinds of things were done to deface the door but still no one had ever done anything about it. Stevenson’s description of this door tells us that all doors in this type of area were similar.
As the novel continues it is Hyde’s first appearance where we see he has just ‘trampled calmly’ over a little girl. Here we see that Hyde’s personality is cold and shows no sympathy to the girl he has just nearly killed. In this seen we are told of what people in the low-class area are like. Stevenson tell us that the women were as ‘wild as harpies’, screaming and yelling at what they have just observed, they are seen as less than human. This suggests women in Victorian times were inferior. After the trampling Hyde compensates the family, not because of interest in scandal but for fear of tarnishing his reputation. This suggests Victorians were very sensitive to what others thought of them, if his reputation were damaged then there would be all sorts of things he would not be able to do again.
Before the scene of the Carew’s murder Stevenson describes the night as ‘cloudless’ and ‘brilliantly lit by the full moon’. Suddenly we are told of Hyde beating Sir Danvers Carew. This description gives an excellent effect with the beautiful description of the night then something terrible happening, a perfect atmosphere for a murder. During this horrendous scene we are told that a maid has seen it all happen. Stevenson tells us that she was screaming and panicking, suggesting this was what a typical woman would do. Women were described in this way because they were seen to be inferior in Victorian times. Again women are shown to be as ‘wild as harpies’.
As Utterson speaks to Dr. Lanyon about his meeting with Mr.Hyde, he describes London as a ‘nocturnal’, suggesting London is most lively at night time; when all the bad things happen at night. This shows he knew that many people were not as simple as the seem to be on the surface, but led ‘double lives’, at night when it was least expected.
Throughout the novel Utterson is the main character that tells us of Victorian society, as he is an archetypal Victorian gentleman. We use him as a guide. When we are first given a description of Utterson at the beginning of the novel, we see that the Victorians were very strict with themselves; he “drank gin when he was alone, to mortify a taste for vintages”, meaning he liked to drink fine wines but did not want to over indulge. Utterson also enjoyed the theatre but he has “never crossed the doors of one for twenty years”. This also tells us that Victorians were very strict with themselves. We are also told through Utterson that Victorians were very tolerant of others and that they did not make judgements about each other:
“for he was undemonstrative”
Victorian gentlemen would usually associate with people like themselves and of their own kind for reputation:
” His friends were those of his own blood, or those whom he had known the longest”
The reason for this was because they would have more in common and there would be less chance of scandal which would lead to the damage of reputation, reputation was very important in Victorian times. Again it is reputation that people were most worried about.
In many ways Dr Jekyll is also a fine example of a Victorian gentleman of the upper class. From this description of him we can see that he is a gentleman:
“well made, smoothed-faced man of about fifty.”
Even though he is has a good job and an excellent education; “M.D., D.C.L., LL.D., F.R.S” he leads a secret life which many people did at the time. In those days men would often take part in what would be repulsive acts if found out such as sex with a prostitute, or the liking of pornography. Even though he has a love of depraved acts he can keep up his image by moral rectitude, control and perfection although he tends to loose these towards the end of the novel. When this secret life is first revealed to Dr Lanyon we are told of his shock and horror of what he has just heard:
“O God! Again and again; for there before my eyes – pale and shaken, half fainting, and groping before him with his hands, like a man restored from death – there stood Henry Jekyll.”
When revealed, this was so shocking that it was unbelievable, he questions himself on if he was sure this has just happened:
“I ask myself if I believe it, and I cannot answer”
We are told that Lanyon, after watching the transformation happen right before his eyes has left him so disturbed, his life is “shaken to its roots; sleep has left me; the deadliest terror sits by me at all hours of the day and night; I feel my days are numbered, and that I must die.”
He is in such disbelief that he even tells us he will “die incredulous”
With Stevenson’s description of Hyde we can tell that he is a low class citizen, who is very different to any other low class person. He is described as having a “murderous mixture of timidity” suggesting he is trying to hide something terrible he has done. He is even described as a “mere radiance of a foul soul that thus transpires through, and transfigures, its clay continent?” this tells that Hyde is so evil that this makes him ugly and deformed. Utterson even tells us he is “hardy human!” again suggesting his ugliness. We are told that he lives in Soho, a low class part of London that is famous for its ‘red light district’. We are told that his clothes are oversized, this shows us that he is clearly low class.
As can be seen from these examples of a high-class man and a low-class man there is a complete difference in the way they dress and in their personalities.
With these points I have come to a conclusion that Victorian London and society was not what it seemed to be on the surface. Good aspects like manners and strictness show that people led very normal lives, nothing that was out of the normal but below all kinds of things may happen, for example Dr. Jekyll’s secret love of having two personalities. Victorian London was a city of two halves where the two societies had a very different way of life, both told of in this novel.