Male Expectations in Victorian Time Through Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

By providing evidence of the pressured lives of our characters, we can use Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as a look into the social expectations of Victorian England. Jekyll and Hyde are wildly different yet strangely similar as both bend to the will of others to avoid public exposure. Noticeably, Victorian homosexual and heterosexual oppression can be identified behind the curtains of the narrative as well as public stresses like social status in the 1800s. These conceptualizations of class and masculinity would reach a controversial turning point when fictionalized accounts of “Jack the Ripper” provoked fear and excitement through London. Causing English culture to wonder if this masculine monster can parade behind the mirage of the male social class.

Carolyn W. de la’s essay titled, ‘Licking the chops of memory’: Plotting the Social Sins of Jekyll and Hyde, describes Dr. Jekyll's identity crisis and why he chooses to be more brutal towards women and children when he is in the form of Mr. Hyde. This uncovers the psychology behind Mr. Hyde’s character and how he is not influenced by England’s social pressures in the same way Dr. Jekyll is. However, Hyde still shares reminiscent insecurities facing Dr, Jekyll by consequently bending to the will of the public. For example, in the first scenes, Mr. Hyde is seen trampling a small female child and when angrily confronted by the onlookers he states “If you choose to make capital out of this accident,’ said he, `I am naturally helpless. No gentleman but wishes to avoid a scene,’ says he. `Name your figure.” Where much later in Jekyll’s Narrative he is quoted by saying, “Many a man would have even blazoned such irregularities as I was guilty of; but from the high views that I had set before me, I regarded and hid them with an almost morbid sense of shame,” and “It was the curse of mankind that these incongruous faggots were thus bound together — that in the agonized womb of consciousness”. Both men show a fear of public scrutiny.

It is speculated that this fear of exposure and legal repercussions could be a natural link to the public oppression of homosexual men at this time. It seems likely Dr. Jekyll created Mr. Hyde to separate his sexual identity and his image as a public figure. Hypothetically, even creating another masculine figure he could be with without the risk of the other partner’s exposure. As for Jekyll’s inner struggle, social status, and career choice, it could be assumed that he wishes to be in the body of another man able to explore his “sins”. This evidence could prove Dr. Jekyll is only trying to use Mr. Hyde or another individual’s body, to explore and cope with his identity. In addition, this argument inspires questions about the moral responsibility that rests upon Jekyll and gives more examples from the text as well as differences in personas and physical appearance. Why would a man who follows the social decorum want to lash out in this manner? One might say the men at this time were overly dictated by the fabric of their class that acting out or engaging in scandal would serve as a coping mechanism to release the anxiety they felt in their everyday lives.

A journal by Antonio Sanna, Silent Homosexuality in Oscar Wilde's Teleny and the Picture of Dorian Gray and Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, shows a vast distinction between the hands of Jekyll and Hyde might be a clue into their psyches. Hyde’s hand is described as very brutish with a patch of hair seemingly resembling an animal. Whereas, Jekyll has a softer but firm hand with educated fingers, which could be trying to indicate a more delicate and refined man. Why would the appearance of their hands matter? Further research demonstrates how masculine character identity was displayed during author Stevenson’s time and how it might have enhanced the separation between both Egos.

Possible answers might pertain to cultural stereotypes since this influences thoughts on gender identity presently. Historically, homosexuality was being studied in Victorian England as a physical disorder and mental illness. Another reason that Jekyll could have been cast as a doctor in the text since he would be pressed constantly about this new field of study.

Being in the form of Mr. Hyde would serve as an escape from the expectations circling the doctor and let him explore what life would be like in another man’s position. Even allowing Jekyll to commit Carew’s midnight murder without direct repercussions from the law. Pertaining to societal impressions of the egos, one predicts that due to Jekyll’s social status he is more accepted than Hyde who is treated as an “unemployed” parasite after Jekyll’s fortune. Due to the public’s neglected knowledge of the scientific and monstrous difference between both men. According to Dr. Jekyll’s account of the events, he looks forward to being in the form of Hyde.

This is probably because Hyde had a lesser position out of the prying eyes of the public. It should be understood that Jekyll knew what he was doing was wrong, but he believed he could freely act as a man looked down upon by English society. This is noted in a conversation between Mr. Utterson and Henry Jekyll where he is caught saying, “there is one point I should like you to understand. I have really a very great interest in poor Hyde. I know you have seen him; he told me so; and I fear he was rude. But I do sincerely take a great, a very great interest in that young man”. In this new form, he would be able to commit murder and explore his inner demon to his heart's desire. Jekyll is quoted by saying, “I felt younger, lighter, happier in body; within I was conscious of a heady recklessness, a current of disordered sensual images running like a millrace in my fancy”. Being a man in Victorian England held hidden pressures, men of high social class were expected to uphold and force values of virtue. For heterosexual men, social class was a defining variable in deciding whether they were a “real man” or not.

Ed Cohen, author of Hyding the subject?: The Antinomies of Masculinity in the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde informs readers about the social climate for men in the 1800s. Cohen describes that due to social pressures and the ideological standards for upper-middle-class men the public idealization of masculinity was an unrealistic image hard to uphold. This would later lead to irregularities in masculine representations and authors would produce texts redefining male masculinity to fit “natural human standards” known as proto-modernist novels. In the midst of redefining male gender the Whitechapel murderer, Jack the Ripper would strike down five female prostitutes rocketing headlines across England.

This serial murderer was thought to be a bourgeois man with extensive medical knowledge and sexual rage. Due to the public fascination with penny dreadfuls and crime scandals, this case would become a culturally defining moment in England. More importantly, this man could easily slip away from police most likely by using his social class and public image to evade justice. Something that Henry Jekyll could do once he was in the form of Mr. Hyde. 

Stevenson’s Novella would predate the “Jack the Ripper” killings by only two years, as police later referred to the criminal as having a “Jekyll and Hyde personality”. Citizens would build on the “Ripper’s” tale by associating the attacker with Dr. Jekyll’s alter ego and his career as a medical professional. Intense fabrication was identifiable during the ten-week killing spree, this is attributed to the influence of forged letters from dirty journalists and copycat criminals. Popular novels like Stevenson’s and Oliver Wilde's, The Picture of Dorian Grey are thought to be another influence that would obstruct justice. Both Jack and Jekyll would be able to elude the public eye by hiding behind their roles in the community and manipulating those who surrounded him. In Stevenson’s novel, we can see that the only murders that were committed were by Jekyll and Hyde. One of these events was the subject of The Carew Murder Case and another in The Last Night were Jekyll kills himself and Hyde.

Many speculate the actual identity of the killer, some believing the killer was a homosexual male or even a woman or midwife. However, due to the lingering stereotypes and unrelenting conservative ideas the killer will always most likely be seen as an “upper middle-class man gone bad” who had a gruesome sexual infatuation. Despite this man being heterosexual or homosexual, it would influence future film adaptations of Stevenson’s work. Depicting Mr. Hyde wandering the streets and brutally attacking women, even though that was notably absent from the book. It is difficult to say which myth had a greater impact for traces of the separate stories severely bleed into one another. Both blame the cover of social class for masking the villain.

A newspaper article written by Russell Smith titled The Jack the Ripper Myth Lives on, shows a different side to this assumption of the novel’s influence. Smith denounces social class saying “the identity of the real “Jack the Ripper” is utterly irrelevant, at this point. If there really was only one murderer then he was just a psychotic misogynist, of whatever social class, doesn't matter, end of story.” He believes that the “ripper” was a fake character created from Stevenson’s imagination that inspired several individuals to attack the unfortunate women. It's much easier for one to assume that this individual was mentally deranged and at this time social class and masculine confusion would provide a perfect cover.

The fabricated stories from Londoners and insufficient evidence would turn the “Ripper” into a dark urban legend similar to Hyde. The novel would provide a bizarre catalyst for a serial murderer. Explaining how an upperclassman who was forced to uphold male standards could do such morbid acts, and how a crazed alter ego cemented Stevenson’s novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, into literary history for centuries. 

09 March 2021
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