Jekyll and Hyde: how strange.

In a Queer Theory reading we should not be seeking to prove whether or not a character IS homosexual, but rather we should be looking for the coded signs which indicate the presence of homosexuality in the text. Just as this reading can be used in Gatsby Gatsby: A queer theory stimulus, I want to look at J&H – that story of a masculine monoculture which is riven with secrecy and hints of ‘unspeakable’ acts.

Superficially there are several intriguing lines to follow when reading this text: the predilection for all these seemingly moral men to wander around the city at night and in areas removed from their normal milieu could be explained as being inquisitive, but there is so much left unspoken and unexplained. And no one turns an eye as though these were normal peregrinations. As Enfield puts it: ‘coming home from some place at the end of the world’ … at 3.00AM, on foot through an area ‘all lamps’. Utterson does not question this behaviour which seems at the least, designed to place Enfield in potential danger, but accepts it as the norm. Similarly, no one questions what Sir Danvers Carew is doing accosting a young man ‘down by the river’. Stevenson writes that he ‘accosted the young man with a pretty manner of politeness’ – an odd phrase and we wonder what he means by ‘pretty’ in this context. Whether itis enough to act as a coded signifier of something less than manly is not clear on its own, but consider the other evidence: by the river suggests a locale of sailors and other less-than- commendable morals (in Victorian terms); Carew does the accosting and the pointing, suggesting that he does not seek directions but is, rather, pointing out directions to Hyde. We cannot say that he is trying to fix a sexual assignation, but something said rouses Hyde’s wrath and the response of the police officer ‘Good God, … is it possible’ suggests a rather more shocked response than expected, unless the response suggests shock at something about Carew’s character to be in that place at that time.

Homosexuality was not just banned by law, but perversely had created a blackmailer’s charter by the 19th century. The case of Oscar Wilde is by no means a one-off. We note that Utterson seems to fear that Jekyll is being blackmailed by Hyde, until he learns the truth. It seems fair to suggest that blackmail and homosexuality were seen as two sides of the same coin. With this in mind, signals around Jekyll’s behaviour need to examined closely. Stevenson denied any suggestion of an homosexual subtext, but we need to remember that he would have to have done so, given the legal situation around the act. Reading Jekyll’s letter (chapter 10) it is hard to ignore the numerous suggestions of a wickedness and a crime, which seems to be not based around physical violence. If it were, then it is hard to see why the Carew incident would have had such an effect on Jekyll and why no similar murders seem to be overseen or investigated. Could it be that Jekyll’s crimes are ‘victimless’ and sexual in nature? I suggest that ‘I felt… a current of disordered sensual images…. to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked…. the thought in that moment braced and delighted me like wine’ implies an awakening not of violent impulses but rather something closer to a sexual epiphany. He goes to his bedroom to look in the mirror and among the descriptions of ugliness: Hyde was ‘smaller, slighter, younger’ than Jekyll -in short an older man finds pleasure in the sight of a young, boy-like, character, despite seeing and understanding the marks of evil. The pleasures he pursues are, at first ‘undignified’ (hardly suggestive of violence and murder) and whilst Hyde turns them ‘monstrous’ and ‘centered on self’. Given that at this time even masturbation could be seen as a sin and a ‘vile act’, it is not a huge leap to read something of sexual depravity into these words. Sexual depravity has been at the heart of the Gothic since The Monk and we have no issue reading the vampiric violations of Dracula as inherently sexual in nature. We should not shy away from seeing similar in this text. As his control over Hyde lessens, there is no doubt that the actions take a more violent turn, though this need not be seen as more than a sadistic pursuit of sexual pleasure gained by inflicting pain. In the light of the emergence of Jack The Ripper two years or so after publication, we have to accept that Stevenson’s depiction of a sadistic sexual ‘degenerate’ was very close to reality.

For me, the secrecy in this text, best symbolised by all those locked doors – liminal markers between the private and public personae of the men who inhabit them are a further clue. Even Utterson is aware of skeletons in his closet which might pop out and acknowledges ‘the many ill things he had done’ and works to protect his friends name throughout the book – never summoning the police and warning his clerk, Guest, not to discuss the letter which he has just discovered holds a secret in the handwriting. Enfield avoids trying to look too closely at anything or anyone, for fear of what might be unearthed and Lanyon falls out with Jekyll over his scientific approach – ‘too fanciful for me… wrong, so wrong in the mind’. This is before the revelation which proves Hyde and Jekyll to be one and the same. Whilst we can read this in a number of ways, there remains a suggestion of some form of moral or mental deficiency in Jekyll to which the staid Lanyon has rebelled. The code of a gentleman and a doctor will not let him uncover this defect or make an accusation, and the consequence of this is his death as he acts to help his former friend for the last time.

I hope this gives some food for thought. Maybe this is not strictly GCSE material, but it is material which deserves to be exposed and discussed. In Stevenson’s London, men were bound by unspoken rules of society and are able to indulge their depravities in clubs and male brothels in which all kinds of vice were commonplace. And then there’s the opium…

Please look beyond this novella into the subtext and the world of hints and suggestions.

A guide to brothels from the 1850s: