Literature

Homosexual Undertones in Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’

 

It is highly possible that Mr Hyde represents Dr Jekyll’s repressed homosexuality. The following statement from a recent article provides some insight as to why this is highly possible:

It was the case that around the middle of the nineteenth-century homosexuality was considered a sign of mental and medical illness, and an embarrassing symptom of degeneracy in civil communitiesTowards the end of the 1800s, authors were penning tomes representative of the society around them, or in many cases biographical fiction, but needed to hide the themes of homosexual relationships. One way to hide controversial topics in plain sight was to write within the genre of Gothic fiction or horror.”[1]

Stevenson’s use of the Gothic genre and advanced medicine could easily be a way to mask the latent homosexual undertones within his story in a time where they would not have been accepted openly otherwise.

In particular, it seems that the upper-classes had much more to lose from being openly homosexual, for instance the case of Oscar Wilde, who was

pitilessly punished by the English homosexuality laws in 1895…commonly considered to be the iconic victim of Victorian puritanism[2].

Wilde’s sexuality was considered a scandal that brought him two years of hard-labour in prison, precisely around the time that Stevenson was publishing his work. And indeed, much of this fits with the character of Henry Jekyll, who states that he was

born to a large fortune…with every guarantee of an honourable and distinguished future.” [3]

Jekyll is clearly not of the lower-class, and so feels as though those higher in society would consider him – most harshly – an abomination to be imprisoned, and – at best -mentally unwell. In the context of the late 19th century, it is easy to see why Jekyll feels as though he must repress any homosexuality, and why he would feel the need to

conceal[ed] [his] pleasures9 or else be “plunged into shame9.

Instead, Jekyll purchases his counterpart a place of residence in Soho – credited in the footnotes as a…

seedy district in central London”9 (p.1684),

taking himself far away from the world of the upper-class.

Due to the subtle nature of hiding sub context in plain sight, one could argue that the apparent homosexual undertones are not present. However, the more the story is read, the easier it becomes to read as a metaphor for homosexuality. For instance, upon Jekyll’s first change into Hyde, he states that he was conscious of…

a current of disordered sensual images running like a mill race9 (p.1710)

,which links his changing into Hyde with his sexuality, without specifically referencing female preference. Furthermore, the first time Jekyll loses control over his ability to change is – quite significantly – in his bed:

Yes, I had gone to bed Henry Jekyll, I had awakened Edward Hyde”9 (p. 1713),

a sentence which subtly implies that in bed – the most quintessential sexual location – Jekyll had “awakened” his homosexual duality. Another quote worth mentioning is again Jekyll’s reference to his double life:

it was the curse of mankind that these incongruous faggots were thus bound together9 (p.1710).

Particularly the phrase “incongruous faggots” stands out as having potential homosexual undertones. Whilst it initially appears that Stevenson is suggesting that the two sides of Jekyll’s personality are not in harmony, perhaps this could instead be a reference to how homosexuality is not in keeping with its surroundings – society. This seems even more credible when we consider that the phrase “faggot” was first recorded in publishing in a new context (as a slang insulting term for a homosexual man) very shortly after Stevenson’s story was published.

Throughout the novel as a whole, Hyde’s “adventures10 (p. are never specified – other than the murder and trampling a young girl in the street – despite the reader being aware that Jekyll transformed on many occasions. The reader is never made aware of an increase in murders or other horrific crimes happening during Hyde’s appearances, leading us to believe that his “secret pleasures”[4] (p.1715), (again, a phrase much more suggestive sexually than criminally) were much more private affairs than public.

In conclusion, the context that: “the Victorian era, marginally 1825-1920, was a sexually repressed period”[5]; upper-class homosexuals, such as Oscar Wilde, were being imprisoned for their sexuality; Stevenson’s suggestive phrasing and Hyde’s criminal ambiguity, and finally the Gothic genre being used commonly to hide such issues in the 19th century, all point to the high probability of Jekyll’s duality actually being that of his sexuality and less so of what is truly good and evil. Even if we are doubtful of the homosexual content within Stevenson’s story, it seems evident that there is more to the duality of Jekyll and Hyde than simple good and evil; whether in terms of friendships or something more, Stevenson seems intent on warning against ideas of seclusion and repression, instead favouring seeking reassurance from friendships.


[1]   DI ANN FAY DUFFEY, VULICH, Deviant sexuality in Victorian closets: Homosexuality in nineteenth-century literature (Western Illinois University: ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2016), pp. 1-4.

[2] Ari Adut, ‘A Theory of Scandal: Victorians, Homosexuality, and the Fall of Oscar Wilde’, American Journal of Sociology, 1.111 (2005), p.213-248.

[3] Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘The Strange Case of Dr, Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’, in The Norton Anthology English Literature, The Victorian Age, Volume E, ed. by Stephen Greenblatt (New York.London: W.W.Norton & Company, 2012), pp.1677-1719 (p. 1709)

[4] Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘The Strange Case of Dr, Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’, in The Norton Anthology English Literature, The Victorian Age, Volume E, ed. by Stephen Greenblatt (New York.London: W.W.Norton & Company, 2012), pp.1677-1719 (p. 1713).

[5]  DI ANN FAY DUFFEY, VULICH, Deviant sexuality in Victorian closets: Homosexuality in nineteenth-century literature (Western Illinois University: ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2016), p. 93.

Image: Chicago : National Prtg. & Engr. Co.

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