An Exploration Of Victorian Society English Literature Essay

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From start to finish 'The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde' by Robert Louis Stevenson portrays harsh contrasts: good and evil, rich and poor, morality and immorality, love and repulsion and the upper and lower classes. However it is only when Christian ethics (previously little challenged by other religions or science), the Victorian obsession with respectability, the class system and other stereotypical Victorian attitudes are explored with these contrasts that it is made clear how duplicitous the era was. The novella acts as an engaging exploration into other Victorian attitudes, interests, fears and obsessions. These include: fear of social unrest, disability discrimination, sexism, a desire for resolved endings in literature, a need for biblical references, and clashes between science and religion.

The obsession with wearing "an air of respectability" (as Jekyll is said to hold) is one of the greater reasons why Jekyll finds joy in jumping between his two personalities. It is likely that he would indulge in passions his peers would not have approved of - a mixture of heavy drinking and sex. He also went to prostitutes, a life "he found hard to reconcile [...] with [his] imperious desire to carry his head high". This is undoubtedly also the reason why very few members of the lower classes hold important roles in the story. In fact the only lower class character to properly feature in the novella is the head-servant, Poole. Much closer to his master (he is referred to as "Dear Poole" on one occasion), he has authority over the other servants and certainly is not the 'lowest of the low'; this is probably the main reason why Stevenson considered Poole fit for such a role as he plays. The way in which the characters dress themselves, furnish their homes and talk of one another is also evidence of this obsession. Jekyll's home "wore a great air of wealth and comfort" to such an extent as that Utterson "was wont to speak of it as the pleasantest room in London".

The novella reveals a lot about the class system, the cause of many social problems, and its iron-grip on every Victorian citizen. The upper classes in the book are portrayed as being upright and respectable, living in grand abodes, the spoils of well-paid professions - Jekyll is "a doctor" and Utterson "a respected lawyer". We are also told that Jekyll was born "to a large fortune, endowed besides with excellent parts [...and] fond of the respect of the wise and good among [his] fellowmen". When young he had seemed headed for "an honourable and distinguished future". The lower classes could not be portrayed more dissimilarly. Other than servants, the novella indicates they would be unemployed, criminals or prostitutes working in Soho's sex district. They either live in small quarters in their masters' houses or amongst "slatternly passageways" in the "dismal quarter of Soho". In the Victorian era people grew up knowing which class they belonged to; and, as this was usually defined by birth it provided great benefits for the rich (who stayed rich) but caused the poor to either lose faith in social mobility, or else, to revolt.

'The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde' did not just illustrate the class systems divisions but can serve to strengthen it. It portrays Sir Danvers - immediately before his death - as "an old [but] beautiful gentleman with white hair". This could merely be an attempt by Stevenson to heighten the murder's tension but I feel this symbol of goodness and purity through the character commanding the highest social position is an attempt to highlight the insolubility and inferiority of the lower classes to those above them.

The lower classes feature little in the story, only ever appearing as vehicles through which Stevenson could move the plot forward, or working under the instruction of their employers. This means the upper classes were expected to make the decisions whilst the lower classes ran errands in ineffectual lives. In the book this is demonstrated by the strict rule for addressing members of another class. Addressing an employer "Mr" or "Sir" is expected. Upon the rarity that an employer should dignify their servant with a name it would be their surname as the Christian name was considered too familiar and affectionate. Being seen as such could be damaging to reputations so a more usual form of address would be "Hold your tongue!"

A hierarchical structure manifested from fear of scandal is also evidenced. Were scandals to be directed at upper class personage they could mean a decimated reputation. Yet through a circle of mutual fear the upper classes were able to indulge in whatever "secret pleasures" they wished, such as those that Jekyll confesses to and Hyde commits. The fear of scandal is most strong on page 37, where Utterson is worried the "good name of another would be sucked down in the eddy of a scandal." On page 38 Utterson's butler discovers information labelling Jekyll as a murderer. Utterson urges Jekyll to "make a clean breast of this in confidence" and when the butler's master asks him to keep the matter quiet he calmly says "I understand". Therefore the mutual fear and loyalty in this scandalous system is even stronger than moral duty. Once Jekyll perfects his potion he must work alone to protect his standing, he sets up a room "with the most studious care" in a separate house in Soho for Hyde to reside in and found a "silent and unscrupulous woman" to keep house there. He even goes to the length of familiarizing all his servants with Hyde and writing a will leaving "everything to Hyde in the event of his death or disappearance". It is implicit that the lengths Jekyll takes would mirror other respected characters.

The novella portrays a society divided into two; it is not only Jekyll that is "committed to a profound duplicity of life" - all the rich and powerful live in ignorant luxury, ignoring the suffering lower classes. Stephenson's work also shines light on the system that kept the upper classes' illegitimate indulgences hidden.

Fear of revolutionist ideology was strong amongst members of the upper class. To find evidence of such in this story, one must read into the ways in which the poor are neglected, for example in voting, health, rights and legal representation; and how these factors could lead to a massive uprising (such as was seen in France). Members of lower classes are left almost unrepresented in our story, the many servants, that would have moved quietly within the house, are rarely observed, when they are they are "whimpering quietly". The idea of them "whimpering" shows them as inferior and over-emotional. If not for the more gradual changes in opinion over the class system's role from this under-representation to a world where all classes show some degree of solubility within society Britain may have seen a revolution on the very scale many Victorians had feared.

The Victorians had strong expectations of the content and plots of their era's literature. Stephenson abstains from direct descriptions of immorality, instead only alluding to the novel's graphic scenes. They also expected resolved endings - the righteous prevailing, the evil punished.

Many of Hyde's crimes are only vaguely alluded to, particularly sexual ones. Others, such as Sir Danvers' murder, are described briefly and inexplicitly, only that Hyde was "hailing down a storm of blows". To heighten the shock factor of each crime Stevenson instead describes at length the earlier tranquillity and through later mentioning that "a purse and gold watch were found upon the victim", illustrating that this attack's motive was purely sadistic. This idea of sadism, an utter, deeply entrenched evil is important to the novella's message and Jekyll's hypothesis that evil is not simply brought about by necessity such as a beggared boy turning to pick pocketing but is more deep-rooted and harks back to the idea of 'original sin' and that man is no different to any other beast. Jekyll, reflecting on mankind, "All human being [...] are commingled out of good and evil."

Perhaps the abstinence from graphic description is due to the fact that Stevenson's wife destroyed the first draft for its explicit descriptions of sex, violence and references to homosexuality. Suggestions that Jekyll/Hyde were homosexual are so watered down that many disregard them: Hyde "always enters by the rear door". This dilution typifies the desire for morality and the disgust at graphically intense descriptions; a point which, if further extrapolated, reveals the desire of the upper classes (at whom the novel was targeted) to ignore or hide the huge social problems of their nation.

Victorian novels predominantly are resolved. I personally find archetypal works in which those that exhibit qualities like: perseverance, god-centeredness, humility, generosity and dignity always win out in the end; and where virtue is rewarded whilst wrongdoers are punished disappointing because they are too idealized. This concept is clearer in many earlier novels where even the toils of the poor are rewarded. One vivid example of this is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte in which Jane falls desperately in love with and (by the book's completion) marries Mr Rochester despite his blindness and frailty. At first the tale of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde seems to have strayed from this structure because Dr Jekyll does not manage to separate himself from the "evil side of [his] nature". However the closure of the novel is more complex. Upon re-examination of the concluding chapters it seems to be the case that Jekyll destroyed Hyde along with himself: "the doom that is closing in on both of us has already [...] crushed him"

Victorian literature is usually rife with examples of biblical references, the most prominent here being "'I incline to Cain's heresy'". This refers to 'Genesis 4:9' which describes Cain murdering his brother Abel. God is said to have asked him where Abel was to which Cain said: "Am I my brother's keeper?" Utterson simply re-phrases this to: "I let my brother go to the devil in his own way". The phrase has become synonymous with people's unwillingness to accept responsibility for the welfare of their fellows and is used by Stephenson to advance the plot and broaden Utterson's character.

The need for biblical allusion in literature is one component in the mechanism by which Stevenson sheds light on the struggle between science and religion. On one hand, we see religion reflected in words throughout the novel: Poole uses the phrase "I give you my Bible word" to demonstrate his solemnity to his observation of Jekyll and Hyde but this contrasts with the emerging science. It is worth remembering that many Victorians saw science as an atheistic concept, Lanyon calls Jekyll's works "scientific heresies" in an almost oxymoronic juxtaposition (in an atheistic world there would be no God for science to yield heresies about).The era brought many improvements in science yet some seemed to threaten the literal meaning of the Bible. Most simply found ways to re-interpret the Bible in the light of such discoveries with little damage to their faith. However people especially struggled with ideas set out in 'The Origin of Species' because they seemed too direct an attack on religion. It said that all life evolved from more primitive forms. Darwin's theory is referenced many times such as when Hyde is said to possess "ape-like fury," he is also described as "troglodytic" and "degenerate" perhaps concurrent with a hypothesis of reverse evolution into a more primitive form. People now felt they had to choose between the dangerous new scientific theories and the more venerable option of religion. From the viewpoint of any man choosing the latter, Jekyll's experiments would be considered meddling in God's affairs and something only God should have control over.

The structure of parts of the book, also, reflects a more scientific approach to situations which would before have been tackled with superstition and the words of the bible. On pages 41 and 63, this is demonstrated by sections of text that take each event methodically, as if they were notes from an experiment. Hyde's transformations are also listed like scientific observations.

Chemistry is also in evidence, as an emerging science, not yet tested. To exploit the curiosity of his audience to the complex moral implications of modern science Stephenson chose Jekyll as the novella's protagonist and uses many words connected to Jekyll's profession to add depth and mystery to the plot: "the glazed presses full of chemicals", "a graduated glass" and a "red tincture [...] and powders". Jekyll uses chemistry to transform into Hyde, and part of the reason Stevenson thought this more feasible was that nobody had yet fully explored chemistry's possibilities. Perhaps, if he were to write 'Jekyll and Hyde,' today, the means of transformation might be genetic engineering/quantum physics.

Drug and alcohol abuse are witnessed at horrendous levels. Utterson describes a "gin palace"; "a woman passing out for her morning glass" indicates the low price of gin and how this ravaged many lives. Drugs are only hinted at although the "convulsive action" of Hyde's jaws and "gagging" described by Lanyon is now recognized as a symptom of cocaine abuse.

For me the most powerful symbol of science's advancements is in Jekyll's transformations which symbolise both progress and devolution making them a cause of fear. It is worth remembering Poole's hasty return to the comfortable reassurance of religion, with the words "God grant there be nothing wrong."

In his novella, Stevenson repeatedly tells of some "unnameable deformity" that makes Utterson's "blood run cold". Words like "dwarfish" all tell a similarly negative story of Hyde's countenance. Enfield describing Hyde to Utterson said simply: "There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable". The present day sees disability viewed less critically than the era that saw the publication of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It could be argued that Hyde is scary purely because of his tendency towards evil, but is this true? In my opinion 'Yes' would be too shallow an answer. Stevenson plainly states such in the text: "evil [...] had left on that body an imprint of deformity". Like so many fictional villains impairment and deformity contribute even to modern-day fearfulness of Hyde. Prejudice to the disabled/deformed is resultantly one heinous Victorian attitude that lingers still.

Such prejudicial views were not just limited to the disabled; women were also considered less valuable, sexism engrained in society. On page 55 Hyde is described as "weeping like a woman"; this succinctly illustrates how women were considered "too frail". It was believed they lacked the cranial capacity in emotionally disturbing events. In 'The Last Night' the cook was "crying out, 'Bless God! It's Mr Utterson'", the housemaid "broke into hysterical whimpering", and then proceeded "weeping loudly". Such instances were considered to demonstrate how women were unable to cope with complex or emotional situations. With such weak foundations in place, women were thought unsuitable for important jobs like government posts; having said such, the head of the monarchy was a woman. However this did not result in any relaxation of the feminine ideal; indeed only upper class women were not restricted to housework, and raising as many children as possible. This stereotypical idea of faintheartedness - as opposed to intelligent thinking and decisions - is also exemplified on page 30, after Sir Danvers' murder: "at the horror of these sights and sounds, the maidservant fainted."

"Man is not truly one, but truly two". These words - the conclusion to Jekyll's life and research - capture the essence of the entire novella and the stereotypical Victorian attitudes reflected in it: most notably hypocrisy, from the division of the class system, other discriminatory bandings including sex and disability, and the division of faith between science and religion. So great were the contrasts in the novella that terms evolved from 'Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde' have become part of modern life. The phrase is used by newspapers to describe disturbing murderers; with personalities not dissimilar to the characters - or character, depending on how you look at it - that are central to our story. As with the infamous Jack the Ripper (another affluent murderer) the stereotypically dark or primitive society that is too oft reflected by Victorian horror stories fails to fully explore the core - the Jekyll in this instance -- a core of civility, respectability and prosperity. In this way the novella acts as an engaging, yet inaccurate exploration that only reinforces old stereotypes about Victorian society.