Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Taylor Martin

“What is Hidden and What is Revealed: Victorian Anxiety and Victorian Context”

Much of the literature written in the Victorian Era seems to cling to secrecy as a reoccurring theme, though this secrecy is not often as explicit as it is with the case of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. The novel stages secrecy as its central trope. The majority of the novel is concerned with one character’s attempt as uncovering the secret of another character. There is a surface interplay of duplicity between the public and private self that seems to make this novel, on a surface level, quintessentially Victorian. However, this novel about secrecy contains secrets of its own that are even more revealing of its Victorian context. Stevenson places a darkness that looms below the surface not only with Jekyll, but seems suggests this darkness at some point within each of his characters. This preoccupation with dark undercurrents suggests that we look for a similar darkness within the writer himself; or that analyze the text more carefully in search for hidden desires that shed light upon darker aspects of Victorian culture.
Much of what can be found in such a search seems to embody Victorian anxieties. The greatest of these anxieties, and the one that is outlined most clearly to us in the text, is the anxiety surrounding public self and reputation. Utterson, our narrator for most of this story, leaves no doubt in the Non-Victorian reader’s mind about the Victorian obsession with reputation. Stevenson characterizes Utterson as reputable and trustworthy figure in that he is concerned with reputation, but will also remain friends with one whose reputation has been tarnished. He is the Victorian ideal in that he stubbornly and consistently rational, and always keeps his public fa├žade in tact. He is a lawyer, therefore automatically respectable according to Victorian law. However, his willingness to remain faithful to those who have somehow uglied their reputations suggests that even he is at least intrigued by the darkness that is suggested to be in everyone through Jekyll and Hyde. There is a subtle corruption of the Victorian ideal that occurs here, which is seemingly subliminal to Stevenson.

Acknowledging this suggests to a Non-Victorian reader, that we should delve not just into the psychological dynamic that is the staged moral of the story, or the duality of the actually singular character that is Jekyll and Hyde, but into the psychology of the context in which this story was written, or into Victorianism itself.

The story of Jekyll and Hyde is a story that is centered around an outsider’s perspective of a mystery that seems to involve these two characters, who are actually one person. The moral of such a narrative seem to be that that there is a good and evil side to every person, and that the evil side should be repressed at all costs. Hyde acts out what is considered to be evil in a pure form. While we can’t say Jekyll embodies good in a pure form, he is certainly at all times outwardly composed, respectable, and has qualities of what is considered good. He is his normal self, and Hyde is his evil doppelganger.
There are idealized aspects of Jekyll’s character, however through the course of the story our idealized impression of him tends to sway. The most idealized notion of his character is his occupation, or that he is a man of science. He embodies the Victorian idealization of Rationalism in a form that can be attributed to progress. This comes in stark contrast with who he becomes as Hyde. He quite literally loses his title, in a transformation from the Doctor Jekyll to the mere Mister Hyde. In Stevenson’s description, he becomes a completely unintelligible, more primitive version of himself who shows no remorse in his moral disregard. Though characters largely come up short in their attempts to describe Mr. Hyde physically, seeming to arrive at some unexplainable psychological or metaphysical ugliness rather than actual characteristics that would be considered physically ugly, there is one word in particular that is troubling in Utterson’s description. He says that is like Hyde is somehow seemingly not human, and that there is “something troglodytic” about him. Before this point, we are only given words that give vague physical ideas, such a “pale” and “dwarfish”. Here, we are given the scientific root word “trogolodyte” in it’s adjective form, meaning that Mr. Hyde appears as a lesser-evolved form of a modern human. This one scientific term exposes our main underlying Victorian anxiety; the European anxiety towards the racial other. When this term is brought into the description, it seems to beg to refute the word “pale” used earlier in the description, and expose it merely as a rather untactful cover up for what is really scary about Mr. Hyde. The phrase seems to embody the underlying anxiety that has become apparent in the scientific practice of the 19th century, which sought justification and empowerment of white superiority, all of which was reactionary against an underlying fear of losing this superiority to those whose race was considered genetically, and therefore unquestionably inferior.

While the Victorian racial view may be the most troubling of the Victorian anxieties we are left with, in that it is seemingly the most encoded and difficult to bring to the surface, it is not the only one present. Going back to the Victorian idea of the social norm and the importance of reputation brings up more ideas for taboos that should be repressed. All of the major characters we meet in this story are male, and more importantly they are all bachelors. There is an importance placed on the idea of the “male bond” throughout, and from the very beginning there is a homosexuality present that is made eerie by its suppression. Utterson and his friend Mr. Richard Enfield become the most prominent example of this. Those who see this relationship from an outside perspective are left with questions to be answered. The two seem to have nothing in common, yet they meet at the same time every week, and place great value upon these meetings. People around them question what they could possibly see in each other as friends or get out of their relationship, since they seemingly have nothing in common, and much of the time they spend in public is in seeming displeasure and silence. The fact that these details are inserted into there relationship, and are somewhat displaced from the greater narrative, implies that the potential homo-social aspect of theirs and other potentially similar relationships should remain hidden. In fact, that seems to be the only greater point that can be extracted from this particular relationship.
The fact that this relationship might be taboo is not necessarily what is eerie about this and other male/male relations in the story. Moreover, it is that women are almost completely written out, in that there are no memorable female characters, other than the girl who is trampled by Hyde in the beginning of the story. What becomes offensive is just this, as it suggests that women have no place in this discussion revolving around the Victorian rationale. Women are never present, presumably confined to their homes, occupied by being ideal Victorian women. This one occurrence of a memorable female character suggests that this segment of the story be read as reactionary towards women’s place in Victorian society, in that it shows us what happens to a woman when she is out too late.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of the most popular stories to ever have been written in the English language. Along with this popularity comes a mystification and several preconceived notion concerning what the story is about that are brought along to an actual initial reading of the text. It is often taught that this story is simply a tale of the dual nature of selfhood. That there is an inherent good that cannot exist without an inherent evil within all humans, and that it is somehow our suty as humans to suppress our evil side. However, to read the story just as that would be to miss potentially greater, more reveling points. To psychoanalyze the story along with the context in which it was written allows for a more useful interpretations in a contemporary setting.
A story about a man who invents a potion that transforms him into a pure form of his evil self immediately sets up a contrast between the self, and the other that dwells within the self. However, that is not all it can be, since in this case our other takes a literal physical form, raising the question of whether or not we should analyze the character as one character or two. To read this just as a warning for what happens when the darker side of our psyche is not suppressed would be to miss out on several contextual details that are revealing to the Victorian rationale. Instead of taking this as just a warning about what dwells within the individual, we should take it for how residue of these Victorian notions can still be found in our culture today, and that we should avoid perpetuating these notions at all costs.