Monday, 6 March 2017

GCSE English Literature: A Few Thoughts on Mr Hyde

The first time the reader encounters Mr Hyde is when he tramples the girl in the street. It is worth noting that this occurs ‘about three o’clock of a black winter morning’. It was ‘all as empty as a church.’ Stevenson’s novella is of the Victorian Gothic, a late nineteenth century reawakening of the earlier Gothic genre popularised decades before by writers such as Mary Shelley and Ann Radcliffe. One trope of the gothic is to create isolated settings. In Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, for example, she uses mountain ranges, country estates and the frozen landscape of the North Pole. The reason why this is used is straightforward: isolation means the characters are alone with nobody to hear them scream. Remote settings are still used in horror nowadays; characters will often find themselves somewhere away from other people where monsters can easily prey upon them. Stevenson’s problem arises from trying to create the same Gothic scares in the much busier setting of London. He needs to make his victims isolated and vulnerable to attack from the Gothic monster; this is hard to do in a bustling urban setting. He does the next best thing – he sets Hyde’s attacks at night. By creating empty streets, Stevenson has made a lonely place and left the wandering girl, or Mr Carew in a later chapter, weak.

Hyde is small in stature, ‘a little man who was stumping along eastward.’ The verb, ‘stumping’ has connotations of awkwardness. Stevenson implies that Hyde struggles to move in a normal way, yet he is powerful. He tramples the girl ‘like some damned Juggernaut’. The choice of simile here is worth remembering as a key quote when you revise. A juggernaut is a powerful, overwhelming force. It is possible to argue that this is from the animal instinct that Hyde is driven by. He seems to have brute strength. If you have studied the novella in class, you should be aware of Freud’s ‘Three parts of the psyche’, the id, ego and super-ego. However, these are more modern terms for what is going on in Stevenson’s book as Freud wrote about these in the 1920s. Jekyll and Hyde was published in 1886. You can still use id and ego as these are accepted terms for what Stevenson was writing about – the ‘primitive duality of man’.

It is also worth noting that Jekyll and Hyde (1886) was published two years before Jack the Ripper began his murder spree in Whitechapel (1888): be very careful if you want to suggest that Stevenson was influenced by this. He wrote the book before the murders took place! However, Jack the Ripper is still indicative of the concerns of the novella, from a modern reader’s perspective. Stevenson was concerned with the idea that the Victorian Gentleman could have suppressed, antisocial desires and then two years later, a Victorian Gentleman (we know that he was well dressed, fed his victims expensive grapes and rode in a carriage) literally ripped open prostitutes in some of the most brutal murders in British history. Stevenson was not influenced by these - it is impossible - BUT the Ripper murders are an enactment, in real life, of the very issue Jekyll and Hyde was about. The ‘primitive duality of man’.

The strange thing about Hyde’s appearance is that it seems wrong, yet there is nothing an observer can pinpoint that makes them believe this. Mr Enfield said, ‘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 feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point.’ He is unable to articulate how Hyde is ‘deformed’. Possibly because Hyde’s deformity is not physical, it is mental: he exists without ego and super ego. He has no moral code to shape his behaviour. This is what is lacking in him, rather than a physical absence.

The thing I find most interesting in Hyde’s presentation is how he makes those around him react. When he tramples the girl, Enfield notes, ‘I had taken a loathing to my gentleman at first sight.’ But, strangely, so had the doctor who was on the scene, ‘I saw that Sawbones (slang for Dr) turned sick and white with he desire to kill him.’ Enfield admits he felt the same. When Poole speaks to Utterson later in the narrative, he relays when he saw Hyde, ‘there was something queer about that gentleman – something that gave a man a turn – I don’t know rightly how to say it, sir, beyond this: that you felt it in your marrow – kind of cold and thin.’ People who see Hyde seem to struggle to articulate him: they can’t use their words to describe how he looks or how he makes them feel. I wonder if this is because he is appealing to the animal instinct in them? This is about the observer’s id, their inability to apply social rules to the creature they are faced with. They react to Hyde in instinctual ways: they want to hurt him or run from him, both id-driven impulses. Is Stevenson suggesting, then, that if one gentleman should embrace his animal instinct, that we, as animals too, will start to behave in similar ways? It almost infects the people who come into contact with him. The doctor turned ‘sick and white’ at the urge he felt: to hurt Hyde back. His moral code – that of the Victorian Gentleman – was pushed to the limit by encountering Hyde. He felt ‘sick’ because he felt it at all: it was his own instinct trying to force to the surface, beyond the limits of his self- imposed, socially acceptable behaviour. Ultimately, what I’m trying to say is that Hyde seems to bring out other people’s animal instincts too. We see their own ‘primitiveness’.

A checklist for you on what was expected from a Victorian Gentleman:

The Victorian Gentleman

  • Well educated - from the aristocracy or professional roles.
  • Moral – there had been a revival of the chivalric code during this period. Gentlemen were supposed to be honourable and conduct themselves well. Chivalry, courage and kindness to everyone.
  • Well presented – be properly dressed and well groomed. 
  • Appropriate manners – use the correct social etiquette.
  • Self-restraint – behave appropriately, do not act on impulses.
  • Wealthy – build wealth and keep it. Be wise and thrifty.
  • “Keep up appearances.” Charles Dickens. It is all about a gentleman keeping a good reputation and his honour.

No comments:

Post a Comment