Monday, August 10, 2009
Was Dr. Jekyll gay or just a repressed Victorian?
I think that Showalter’s assertion that The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is actually a tale of latent homosexuality is interesting and quite possibly true. It definitely made me read the story differently. I looked into Stevenson’s life and found that he was rather a sickly man with a domineering wife. Since he was famous from his serialization of Treasure Island, it was true that he had the admiration of a great number of men. He also was reported to have feminine sensibilities. Around that time male homosexuality was finding favor in the more artsy circles, such as that of Oscar Wilde. It was also very much punishable by imprisonment. And it’s true that when you go back and read the story with that in mind, there are all kinds of gay inferences.
I somehow don’t think Stevenson said to himself, “I think I’ll write this story and hide all kinds of homosexual references in it so that people will analyze it for hundreds of years to come thereby giving me literary immortality.” Rather, I think that he may have had those tendencies secretly embedded in his personality, and when he decided to write a thriller, it came out of his subconscious. I’d venture to guess that if a critic of the times had suggested it, he’d have been horrified.
In reading this book, after having seen movie adaptations of it, I was surprised to find that there are actually no women at all in the book. Yes, all of the characters in the book are men, but I can see the “men’s club mentality,” that upper class males had their sanctuaries, furnished with leather clad club chairs, where they could drink brandy, smoke cigars and be free of female influence. This can be seen in many books from the era such as in that of Jules Verne or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Also, women in Victorian times were not allowed to freely roam the streets or go out by themselves, so their inclusion in the book might have limited the action.
But I think the story is more than that. It reflects the Victorian sensibility that you’d better be careful if you let out the hedonistic side of your personality, because if you do, surely all hell will break loose and you’ll be ruined and possibly die.
Dr. J states, “Even at that time, I had not yet conquered my aversion to the dryness of a life of study. I would still be merrily disposed at times; and as my pleasures were (to say the least) undignified, and I was not only well known and highly considered, but growing toward the elderly man, this incoherency of my life was daily growing more unwelcome.”
He creates Mr. Hyde initially as a way of blowing off steam, of escaping the confines of Victorian society. “I was the first that could thus plod in the public eye with a load of genial respectability, and in a moment, like a schoolboy, strip off these lendings and spring headlong into the sea of liberty.”
Since, in those times, reckless pleasure had to be punished, it all goes horribly wrong. Dr. Jekyll starts losing control of the transformations as Mr. Hyde takes a stronger hold over him. Then Hyde kills a man of high position. Dr. Jekyll vows to be rid of his evil side, and for a while, he fills his life with altruistic acts. But after a time, the evil side creeps back, and he transforms into Mr. Hyde without the special potion.
It begins to take more and more of the antidote to turn him back into Dr. Jekyll. As though in fear of his own death, Mr. Hyde starts playing diabolical tricks on Dr. Jekyll: destroying his papers and artwork, scrawling rude things in his books. Then the antidote stops working, and Dr. Jekyll kills himself. Again, the lesson is that no good can possibly come of an uncontrolled life of self-indulgent pleasure.
Also, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was published at the same time that the public was whipped up into a frenzy of terror about the Jack the Ripper murders. Stevenson tells us that the shadowy beast isn’t some unknown creature that roams the streets; rather, it comes from inside of us.
Showalter, Elaine. Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siecle. New York: Viking, 1990. Print.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde