Monday, August 10, 2009

The Doctor Will See You Now

We’ve entered the asylum and found a mad doctor waiting for us. He has a secret, it seems a little thing, deformed and easily agitated, but his secret is why we’re here tonight.

Robert Louis Stevenson gave the world “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” a wonderful tale of the duality of man. My post on the Griffin Gate page excoriated (Dr. Arnzen’s word) Dr. Jekyll’s final statement concerning his transformations into the evil Mr. Edward Hyde, but this is one of those stories that allows for every generation to delve into their own darkness, to give meaning to Hyde.

Elaine Showalter delved into the darkness at the back of Dr. Jekyll’s closet and she found Hyde to be a homosexual mirror image of the good doctor, a free spirit reveling in the gay underworld of nineteenth century England. Dr. Jekyll let Hyde out of the closet, but he never allowed himself out of that closet.

Showalter makes an excellent case, one I personally didn’t pick up until Dr. Jekyll’s statement at the end of Stevenson’s book. There isn’t a female character outside of the maid who witnesses Hyde stomp and beat Carew to death. Not one. All the major characters are men of means, all have servants and homes, and they have some standing in their society. Yet, none has a wife; none even mentions having a girlfriend. Showalter states: “The characters are all middle-aged bachelors who have no relationships with women except as servants.” At first I wrote this off to them being a little older, but none refers to a past love or a wife who died in childbirth or anything of the sort.

The line that really got my mind thinking in Showalter’s terms, though, was “chocolate brown fog.” I’ve seen lots of fog, condition are excellent for it on a waterfront and at sea. I’ve seen gray and white, even green fog tinted by popping smoke to mark a target, and red smoke popped to show a helicopter where we were.

I’ve never seen brown fog. I was willing to write it off to an industrial age city full of soot, ash, and wood burning fireplaces. But that line did gnaw at my brain. It stood out.

The second point is Hyde’s slight stature. Monsters of the modern era are enormous. They overpower we puny humans, their very size is part of what is terrifying. Not Hyde, he goes the other way. He’s deformed, monstrous, he snarls and beats innocent old men to death, but he is small. Stevenson never uses the word dainty, but I got the impression that would be an apt description. Women, generally speaking, are smaller in stature than men so Hyde representing the feminine side of Dr. Jekyll, the side he must hide from society also fits.

However, her argument falters when Hyde is described as “ape-like.” I buy her arguments of femininity being considered less evolved (from that era), but I’ve never thought of a woman as “ape-like.” The other was Hyde’s hands. If he is to be the effeminate side of Jekyll, shouldn’t his hands be more delicate? She quotes Jekyll’s rather conceited assessment of his own hands being “large, firm, white, and comely.” This is far more feminine than Hyde’s “lean, corded, knuckly,” hands. I believe Hyde also had a lot of hair on his hands. If Hyde is to be the less evolved and feminine side of Jekyll, in my opinion, his hands can be small, soft, dainty, but hairy and knuckly evokes almost nothing female for me.

Ultimately, I think this is the genius of Stevenson’s story. He provides specifics for his era, but we never get a clear picture of Hyde, which makes him timeless and all the more scary. Also, we never hear from Hyde. Ever. All of Hyde’s dealings are provided to the reader second-hand, the most reliable is probably Utterson’s meeting him outside his shabby door, a “back entrance” to Dr. Jekyll’s home as it turns out, another point for Showalter there.

However, just off the top of my head, this story can be interpreted as a warning of drug addiction, self control, simply breaking free from strict society rules to run free among the common folks. Hyde can be any number of things.

Personally, Hyde doesn’t represent homosexuality. I don’t see homosexuality as dark subversive stuff. I think Showalter makes an excellent argument for this, but Hyde, to me, is too dark and evil, and that is what is wonderful about him.

Showalter cites several more modern examples of the Jekyll/Hyde tale, some of these bolster her arguments very well, some seem silly. Again, this is testament to the strength of Stevenson’s original idea, the duality of man, the constant struggle for good and evil.

Who knows? A hundred years from now this same story could be seen as drawing the line between remaining on earth, the sensible respectable Jekyll thing to do, or blasting to the stars to discover a new place to live, the youthful dangerous Hyde thing to do. I’m grasping perhaps, but I’m just trying to illustrate how very open to interpretation this story is.

I hope to one day write something that captures so central an idea to humanity as Stevenson has done here.

1 comment:

  1. Well-rounded approach to the subject, DJ. I don't know if Hyde is so much a manifestation of "gay as monstrous" so much as the threat posed by self-indulgence of one's hidden desires, "through a mirror darkly". Think more about this as we read Dorian Gray.