‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, and the fin de siècle

(This essay is the exclusive intellectual property of Brianna L. Gray. No part of the work may be copied or repurposed in any way without the express, written permission of the author.)

In his work Degeneration, Max Nordau captures the mood of the late-nineteenth century, referencing contemporary “qualms” that European society was in the midst of a “Dusk of the Nations, in which all suns and all stars are gradually waning, and mankind with all its institutions and creations is perishing in the midst of a dying world.”[1] It is in this same era of the fin de siecle which Robert Louis Stevenson published his novella The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and both encapsulated and activated these same concerns which were causing great anxiety among Britons. While Britain had traditionally identified itself with a culture that exemplified civilisation, piety and morality, during the fin de siecle anxieties arose that Britain was descending into infirmity and barbarity. Although the age of imperialism and Second Industrial Revolution were at their zeniths, and London remained a capital of trade and culture, the prominence of theories of degeneration, scientific naturalism, and Darwinism destabilised British confidence in the religious, biological and moral foundations on which their Empire resided. Thus, Stevenson uses grotesque imagery to demonstrate this pervasive malaise, and evokes contemporary paranoia that English civilisation simply masked a primitive barbarity, by showing the primitive Hyde to be a fundamental part of Jekyll’s identity. Furthermore, he highlights his characters’ self-conscious enactment and careless contravention of Victorian masculine ideals, and thus activates contemporary anxieties over a crisis in masculinity which threatened the Empire’s security. He likewise shows the upper-middle class patriarchy to be threatened by the ascendant working classes, and demonstrates that the pious superiority on which Britain’s moral empire was founded was in danger, as the gentry, whose responsibility it was to protect this moral hegemony, were themselves immoral and degenerate.  Finally, Stevenson highlights the duplicity and duality inherent in Britain and its subjects, and shows that their reputation for civilisation is based on the careful repression of negative, and active projection of positive, elements, which obfuscate the fact that Britain’s “institutions”, “creations” and “m[e]n” are “perishing in the midst of a dying world.”

Stevenson activates the anxiety that the “Dusk of Nations” was nigh by evidencing a degenerate malaise over his characters and setting, which are seen to be tainted from the core.[2]  He employs pathetic fallacy in his description of the weather and physical condition of London, invoking an atmosphere of pessimistic foreboding. Upon Carew’s murder, London is “drowned” in a “great chocolate-coloured pall” of “fog,” by which Stevenson connects the termination of Carew’s life with Britain’s suffocation.[3] Similarly, on the night of Jekyll’s death, the strong winds are said to have “swept the streets…bare of passengers,” thereby foreshadowing upcoming change, which will wipe Jekyll, and his ‘passenger’, from existence.[4] In negatively portraying urban London, therefore, as a site in which electric “lamps [glimmer] like carbuncles,” and in which “street after street” is “lighted up” yet remains as barren and “empty as a church,” Stevenson suggests industrialisation has brought degradation, not progress, equating the lamps with an open, festering wound.[5] The author focalises the effects of this national sickness on an individual level by positioning Hyde as an internal sickness, whose negative effects on Jekyll’s health are contrary to the aims of his progressive scientific experiment; Utterson notes that Jekyll looks “deathly sick” and “feverish,” while Hyde’s “powers” are said to “have grown with the sickliness of Jekyll.”[6] Finally, the novella’s pivotal events take place under the cover of a “gross darkness,” – which is the site of murder, suicide, rape, and “nightmare[s],” – and the morning after Carew’s murder, which leads to Jekyll/Hyde’s eventual demise, is said to be “dark like the back-end of evening.”[7] Thus, Stevenson’s construction of plot and atmosphere suggests that Europe was indeed experiencing the “Dusk of Nations,” in which both nature and mankind are waning, and mankind is dying within a “dying world.”[8]

Steven heightens these anxieties by showing British civility to be a mere veneer which masks the barbarity of ‘Darkest England.’ Drawing upon contemporary imperial literature on the horrors of ‘Darkest Africa,’ fin de siècle writers, such as William Booth in his In Darkest England, drew parallels between the “pygmies,” “savages” and “raiders” of the African continent and the “barbarians” produced by “Civilisation” itself, and pondered whether they might not “discover within a stone’s throw of our cathedrals and palaces similar horrors” to those found “in the great Equatorial forest.”[9] Contributing to this anxiety were Darwin’s theories on atavistic reversion, which allowed for the possibility of evolutionary regression to ancestral types.[10] Stevenson depicts these cultural anxieties by describing Hyde’s as atavistically “troglodyt[ic]”, with his “dwarfish” stature, “corded and hairy” hands, “savage laugh” and “ape-like” “delight” in physical violence.[11] What is sinister about this description, however, is that Hyde is revealed to be a fragment of Jekyll’s own being, part of the “primitive duality of man”;[12] given that Jekyll is otherwise positioned as the quintessential English gentleman, in his philanthropy, “taste” and learned achievements, Stevenson radically implies that this barbarian resides permanently in every gentleman.[13] Stevenson’s construction of a shocking denouement, therefore, parallels contemporary degenerationist hysteria;[14] Benedicte Morel’s description of degeneration as any “pathological deviation” from normality had become cemented in the national psyche, making Britons especially conscious that any visible deformity might be the first step in widespread biological devolution.[15] Thus, Hyde’s atavistic aspect, which gives a “strong feeling of deformity”, turns ordinary women “as wild as harpies,” makes Sawbones “turn sick and white” with murderous intent, and causes Enfield to contend that blackmail was the “next best” thing to “killing.”[16] Therefore, Stevenson activates contemporary cultural anxieties over the fear that Britain’s civilised appearance was a mere veneer which masked the barbarity and atavism of its subjects.

Furthermore, Stevenson’s homosocial novella both enacts and activates cultural anxieties over a perceived crisis of masculinity, which threatened to weaken an Empire predicated on patriarchal power structures. In Victorian England, authentic manliness was constituted by “rugged individualism,” virile strength, their intrinsic difference to the feminine ‘Other,’ and their work ethic;[17] as William Landels noted in 1859, it was by “constant, never-ceasing work” by which one became a man.[18] Furthermore, the domestic space, which a man owned and a woman improved, was valorised as offering a refuge from the degeneration of urban life.  Thus, in depicting a homosocial circle of professional male bachelors, whose only female contact is with nameless servants, Stevenson portrays domestic interiors which are the antitheses of those belonging to the quintessential ‘man’. The gentlemen’s hearths and “great, dark bed[s]” are sites of horror, around which unnamed servants “huddl[e] together like a flock of sheep,” and in which Utterson “tosse[s] to and fro.”[19] This lack of manly domesticity is compounded by Lankester’s hypothesis that conditions which render  “food,” “safety” and “fortune” easily attainable lead to “parasitism,” “immobility” and atavism.[20] Stevenson therefore juxtaposes Utterson, the “paragon of Victorian masculinity,” with Hyde:[21] Utterson, on the one hand, defines himself professionally, as “Mr. Utterson the lawyer;”[22] adheres to a strict routine of exercise and religious study; demonstrates his physical courage on the night of Jekyll’s death; and avoids the corrupting power of material ease, drinking “gin” to “mortify a taste for vintages,” and abstaining from theatre-going “for twenty years,”[23] while Hyde embodies the antithesis of this ideal, as he “Weep[s] like a woman,” eschews employment and routine, and yet still avails of a “closet…filled with wine,” and “several thousand pounds” in “credit.”[24] By portraying Hyde as ‘parasitically’ financially dependent, and ‘inert’ in his unemployment, Stevenson shows Hyde and his impotent peers to be undergoing a crisis of masculinity.

Stevenson deepens these anxieties over Britain’s degeneration by showing this decline to be the result of shifting power relations between the classes. Darwin’s theories on natural selection in civilised societies caused widespread anxiety during this era, as he theorised that social welfare, medicine and “poor-laws” protected “weak members” who would otherwise have been “eliminated,” and that this process was “highly injurious to the race of man.”[25] Hence, the “residuum” of “Outcast London” were thought to pose a threat to civilisation, as in Cantlie’s Degeneration Amongst Londoners, in which he claims that “foul,” urban London was “raising up a puny and ill-developed race,” and expresses his fears for the Empire’s condition “after they…[take]…charge.”[26] Stevenson evidences these anxieties when he describes how the “square of ancient, handsome houses” on which Jekyll’s residence was located had “decayed from their high estate” and were “let in flats…to all sorts…of men: map-engravers…shady lawyers, and the agents of obscure enterprises.”[27] Given the traditional association of property with heredity and status in English culture, the degradation, subdivision, and renting of these properties to men who, professionally, sought to alter the physical, legal and economic foundations of English society, demonstrates the threat which the rising lower-classes posed to old-moneyed elites like Henry Jekyll. Similarly, the murder Carew, M.P., is figured as a confrontation between “old-world kindness” and authoritative “self-content” of the elected representative of democracy with the “ape-like fury” of a “madman”;[28] whereas the “old gentleman” is “much surprised and a trifle hurt,” by Hyde’s breach of decorum, Hyde “impatien[tly]” disregards the social impetus for a peaceful, discursive solution, and “[hails] down a storm of blows.”[29] Furthermore, the urban poor, and the crime associated with them, are highly visible within the novella, in the form of “ragged children huddled in the doorways,”  “newsboys,” “[b]lack-mail,” “thie[ves],” and “the gallows.”[30] The growing movements in suffrage, socialism and trade unions, which sought to empower the ‘residuum’ caused anxiety among the elites, which Stevenson activates by geographically situating the gentlemen’s West End dwellings in unrealistically-close proximity to those of the poor; they are seen to be literally at the backdoor, threatening to invade polite society.[31] Thus, Stevenson’s depiction of the urban poor, and the clash of the working-class and gentlemanly worlds, activates cultural anxieties over shifting class relations, which threatened to un-civilise the Empire.

Stevenson furthermore demonstrates that the piety and morality upon which British civility and its project were premised was unravelling. Although the Church and gentry had traditionally guarded British morality, the rise of scientific naturalism, which claimed all phenomena were explicable through science, and changing power structures between the English classes as a result of modernisation, were seen to have imperilled their hegemony;[32] contemporary writers spoke of a “population sodden with drink, steeped in vice, eaten up by every social and physical malady,” and thus so immoral that it was a “satire…upon our Christianity and our civilisation.”[33] Stevenson provides evidence of this degeneration in the character of Utterson, whose otherwise “austere” nature is marred by his role as “the last reputable acquaintance and…good influence in the lives of down-going men,” and by his ‘inclination’ to “Cain’s heresy”;[34] Utterson’s piety is artificial, therefore, and restricted to “a volume of some dry-divinity” on Sunday nights.[35] In an 1887 letter, however, Stevenson locates the “harm” of the novel in Jekyll’s “hypocri[sy],” which leads him to displace his own “moral turpitude” into the figure of Hyde, who consists of “malice, and selfishness and cowardice,” and represents the “diabolic in man”;[36] he is figured as an “evil influence,” Utterson fears that he bears “Satan’s signature,” and Jekyll states that he constitutes a “devil…caged” inside of him.[37] In describing, furthermore, Jekyll’s demise into his “second and worse” self, as a result of the fact that his “virtue had slumbered” and he was not “under the empire of generous or pious aspirations” when he “approached” his experiment, Stevenson activates contemporary anxieties over the idea that Britain’s moral empire, which had ostensibly been bathed in rhetoric of Christianisation and civilisation, was corrupted by the moral failings of the mother country.[38] Britain’s moral character was “down-going” and moving “wholly towards the worse,” given the weakening control of the Church and the gentry, and therefore there was the possibility that its “discover[ies],” too, would be degenerate and threatening.[39]

As such, Stevenson thematises the ideas of secrecy, doubleness and the Gothic “unspeakable,” in order to demonstrate that civilisation has devolved into a front which belie the degenerate underworlds which must be repressed. Stevenson places the theme of duality at the core of the narrative, and constructs a series of doubles which are juxtaposed against each other; these include the eponymous Jekyll and Hyde, as ‘civilised’ and ‘primitive, but also Mr. Hyde and “Mr. Seek,” “angel[s]” and “fiend[s],” “good” and “evil,” “reputation” and “disgrace,” “sanity” and “madness.”[40] In each of these binary oppositions, although the ‘negative’ ultimately prevails, it is the ‘positive’ which is presented to society by Stevenson’s characters as a means of preserving their “respectability” before the “public eye”;[41] Jekyll divorces the “extraneous evil” within him, so that he “carry [his] head high, yet this evil prevails.[42] The multiple narrative voices evidence the characters’ attempts to state their “case,” in the form of “statement[s],” “letters” and metaphorical “incident” reports, as the loss of “friends” and “credit” is seen to be akin to a social death within fin de siècle English society.[43] Gothic unspeakability prevails with the novella, therefore, as the spectres of “undignified” “pleasures” and “youth[ful]” “capers” are carefully repressed;[44] Jekyll engages a “silent” housekeeper, Utterson and Enfield say “nothing” on their walks, and Enfield ruminates on the danger of “putting questions.”[45] Jekyll’s “undignified” pleasures are therefore shrouded in ambiguity, and although they may include degenerate pursuits ranging from alcoholism and slumming, to cock fighting and deviant sexuality, their unspeakability demonstrates Victorian cultural anxiety over the “incongruous faggots” of good and evil that “bound together” and “continuously struggling,” but must be repressed at all costs.[46] Thus, Stevenson’s portrayal of the repression of desires and faults that are continuously intimated but never explicitly stated, highlights Victorian cultural anxiety over the necessary, and damning, “duality of man.”[47]

Thus, in Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, numerous cultural anxieties are activated, which reflect the fin de siecle belief that the “Dusk of Nations” was nigh, and that Britain’s “institutions,” “creations,” and “m[e]n” were degenerate and waning.[48] Stevenson depicts a suffocating physical environment and positions Hyde as an inner sickness, thereby reflecting the malaise of degeneration with which Britain was thought to be afflicted. He draws upon contemporary literature which contends that a primitive darkness and barbarity within the city, and within the atavistic Hyde, were evidence of the devolution of Britain.  Stevenson juxtaposes Utterson’s conscious fulfilment of his masculine role, with Hyde’s immobility and parasitism, activating anxiety over a crisis in masculinity, by which the prevalence of men like Hyde would cause mankind to devolve. As such, Stevenson’s rendering of the working classes as criminal, “ill-contained” and ever-encroaching, reflects contemporary fears that the rising ‘residuum’ were causing the degeneration of English civilisation.[49]  His portrayal of the waning morality of the gentry, who were supposed to be its bulwarks, alludes to contemporary fears that Britain’s moral empire was imperilled. Finally, Stevenson’s shows that both Jekyll and Britain’s outward civility is the result of a profound duplicity, by which ‘undignified’ elements are repressed to conserve the outward appearance of civility, which belies the decline, death and degeneration of Britain’s “institutions”, “creations” and “m[e]n,” which are “perishing in the midst of a dying world.”[50]

[1] Max Nordau, Degeneration (London: University of Nebraska Press, 1993), 2.

[2] Nordau, Degeneration, 2.

[3] Robert Louis Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (e-Art Now: Google Books, 1886), 22, 18.

[4] Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 29.

[5] Ibid., 22, 5.

[6] Ibid., 20, 39, 52.

[7] Ibid., 10.Utterson’s horror at the thought of Hyde “stealing like a thief to Harry’s bedside” has connotations of, especially sexual, assault, given that it takes place in Jekyll’s bedroom. Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 14, 18.

[8] Nordau, Degeneration, 2.

[9] William Booth, In Darkest England and the Way Out (London: International Headquarters of the Salvation Army, 1890), quoted in: Sally Ledger and Roger Luckhurst, eds, The fin de siècle: a reader in cultural history, c. 1880-1900 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 45-46.

[10] Marja Harmanmaa and Cristopher Nissen, eds., Decadence, degeneration, and the end: studies in the European fin de siecle (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 187.

[11] Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 12, 51, 5, 12, 49.

[12] Ibid., 44.

[13] Stevenson makes a point of detailing Jekyll’s extensive resume; these learned achievements are the following: “M.D., D.C.L., L.L.D., F.R.S.”, 9; Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 19.

[14] Max Nordau, Degeneration, 537.

[15] Benedicte Morel, Traité des dégénérescences physiques, intellectuelles et morales de l’espèce humaine et des causes qui produisent ces variétés maladives (Paris: Bailliere, 1857), 15, quoted in: Maria Harmanmaa and Cristopher Nissen, eds, Decadence, degeneration, and the end: studies in the European fin de siècle (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 188.

[16] Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 7, 6, 5, 6.

[17] Josh Tosh, “Gentlemanly Politeness and Manly Simplicity in Victorian England,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 12 (2002): 455.

[18] Tosh, “Gentlemanly Politeness and Manly Simplicity in Victorian England,” 466.

[19] Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 10, 30, 10.

[20] Ray Lankester, Degeneration: A Chapter in Darwinism (London: Macmillan and Company, 1880), 52.

[21] Benjamin D. O’Dell, “Character Crisis: Hegemonic Negotiations in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Victorian Literature and Culture 40.2 (2012): 519.

[22] Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 4.

[23] Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, 4.

[24] Ibid., 34, 19.

[25] Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. John Murray, 1871.

[26] James Cantlie, Degeneration Among Londoners (London: Fiefld & Tuer, 1885), 35, quoted in: Sally Ledger and Roger Luckhurst, eds, The fin de siècle: a reader in cultural history, c. 1880-1900 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), xv.

[27] Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 12-13

[28] Ibid., 17.

[29] Ibid., 17.

[30] Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 18, 21, 6, 14, 51.

[31] Just as Hyde acted like the owner of Jekyll’s house, despite his inferior status. Ibid., 16.

[32] Sally Ledger and Roger Luckhurst, eds, The fin de siècle: a reader in cultural history, c. 1880-1900 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 221.

[33] ibid., 49.

[34] Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 4.

[35] Ibid., `Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 9.

[36] Katherine Bailey Linehan, ““Closer Than a Wife”: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll’s Significant Other,” in Robert Louis Stevenson Reconsidered: New Critical Perspective, ed. William B. Jones, Jr., (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2003), 91-92.

[37] Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 24, 12, 49.

[38] Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 50, 46, 45.

[39] Ibid., 4, 46, 45.

[40] Ibid., 11, 46, 44, 46, 9, 39, 9.

[41] Ibid., 46.

[42] Ibid., 44.

[43] Ibid., 16, 43, 51, 20, 6.

[44] Ibid., 46, 46, 6.

[45]Enfield states his rule is that “the more it looks like Queer Street, the less I ask,” demonstrating the fundamental ‘unspeakability’ of this society. Ibid., 46, 4, 7.

[46] Ibid., 46, 44.Please note that as I conducted a ‘queer theory’ reading of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in a previous course, I have omitted commentary on the homosexual undertones of the novella, which, although significant, would cause me to readdress the same material.

[47] Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 50.

[48] Nordau, Degeneration, 2.

[49] Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 17.

[50] Nordau, Degeneration, 2.

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