Friday, September 7, 2012

'Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde' by Robert Louis Stevenson

I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both.

The above quotation from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, first published in 1886, is the epigraph for Pat Barker’s The Eye in the Door, a novel that features a protagonist experiencing fugue states. In The Eye in the Door, the theme of dissociation is strongly associated with that of surveillance: in other words, dissociation is a way to evade the surveillance of our own conscience, as indeed it is for Jekyll (see also: Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly).

Stevenson’s text is odder than its subsequent reworkings in popular culture might suggest. The first thing to note is that Hyde, who is described as both slighter and younger than Jekyll (the latter is common in dramatisations, but not the former), is rather unimpressive as an avatar of evil. He tramples a child underfoot in the opening chapter; and later he commits a murder without provocation; but otherwise his propensities are described in rather vague terms. Perhaps this was quite enough to create an overwhelming impression of evil in 1886, but it seems rather tame now. Of particular note – and again this distinguishes Stevenson’s tale from its later dramatisations – is the absence of any sexual element in Hyde's escapades. Indeed, there are almost no female characters at all, except in incidental roles (e.g. a servant who witnesses Hyde carrying out the murder from an attic window). This absence has lead some interpreters to see Hyde as an allegory of repressed homosexual desire (hence the lawyer Utterson’s suspicion that Hyde is blackmailing Jekyll). As if in response to this, almost all subsequent dramatisations (including the very first stage production, in the 1880s) have added a heterosexual love interest for Jekyll, and in many cases, they also insist that Hyde’s evil nature expresses itself in sexual terms, usually by violence against female prostitutes (as in, for example, the 1990 television adaptation starring Michael Caine). This last point does take up an allusion in the original text, since Hyde rents a room in a squalid neighbourhood to facilitate unspecified depravities, an action that has no obvious explanation within the text (why would he need a separate room?), but makes immediate sense if one assumes his landlady is a madam.

Lending credence to both the homosexual and the violent heterosexual subtexts is the fact that all the important male characters in the story, including Jekyll, are middle-aged or elderly bachelors, who seem to spend most of their time in each other’s company (this circumstance is apparently not worthy of comment, either for Stevenson or his protagonists). The subsequent career of Jack the Ripper – who came to public attention in 1888, and has been associated with Hyde ever since – lent immediate credence to the second of these interpretations.

Both these sexual interpretations are of course characteristically psychoanalytic, in that they identify what the text does not say as its most revealing element. Stevenson himself rejected any sexual interpretation of Hyde’s proclivities.

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