Friday, February 3, 2012

Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde and the Victorian Class Perception Extravaganza

I lied...there is no extravaganza here, but there is an essay on Victorian class perception as viewed through Literature so just try to enjoy it. Last year I took a class that covered Victorian Gothic novels and this is one of my essays from that class. Disregard page numbers and acquire a copy of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde online if you are interested. I don't remember the edition that the following page numbers are from.
Also, I've been reading On Writing Horror: A Handbook by the Horror Writer's Association and this has made me think about taking old horror-inducing scenarios and reinventing them. Horror is basically a building of anxieties and the Victorian middle class had a lot of anxiety about defining itself into a position in proper society. Basically through defining the classes by strict stratification Victorians felt that they could look at someone and judge their character, mental health, and sexual proclivities upon sight. Before the emergence of the middle class the main concern in England was nobility vs not nobility, but since that new middle class didn't have pedigrees they inscribed identity in the human body and outward expression itself to know who properly belonged to the middle class.
You'd be naive to think that these snap judgments don't exist in the real world on such a scale in this progressive year...or maybe you just aren't strange-looking enough to have experienced it first-hand. I'm of the belief that the Victorian era wrapped its bony white-gloved hands firmly around society and has refused to let go since its inception.

see more Historic LOL
Or maybe that was tentacles that it wrapped around society... Anyway, there are a lot of attempts to get people to stop judging others by how they look. In fact you should check out the movie Tucker and Dale vs Evil to see this concept, along with a lot of slasher movie staples, really twisted about.

Onward to the academic paper:

"Class Portrayal and Societal Anxiety in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"
by J.Lannan

In Late Victorian Gothic novels interest was given to the theme of degeneration of society and character. This theme played out in a variety of ways, but in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” the theme was most curiously portrayed through an upper class anxiety directed towards the lower classes. This anxiety comes to a point in the chapter entitled, “The Carew Murder Case,” where Mr. Edward Hyde carries out a vicious unprovoked attack on Sir Danvers Carew. Hyde’s disregard for what is proper behavior, unprovoked violence and the ways in which Hyde is described when compared to other characters are all representative of Victorian society’s distrust and fear of the lower class, along with a general discomfort in the loss of order and proper behavior in society.
The maid who viewed the attack from her window described Mr. Carew and Hyde in different styles. While describing Carew she focused on him as “. . .an aged beautiful gentleman with white hair. . .” (59). This attention to detail in Carew’s style and mannerisms indicates that the maid paid more attention to him because he appeared to be of some status. Hyde is often described as small, and less noticeable, but when they do notice him they generally dislike him. The maid relays to the police officer that the attacker is ‘Particularly small and particularly wicked-looking. . .’ (61)
Hyde challenged the ideals of Victorian society with his general bad manners and poor disposition, even before he turned to unrestrained violence. Upon Hyde’s exchange in the street before the attack he is rude, impatient and angry. The maid described Carew’s manners as “innocent an old-world kindness of disposition, yet with something high too, as of a well-founded self-content.”(60) Earlier in this passage it is implied that Carew made a request of Hyde, possibly asking for directions, and Hyde reacted in a fit of anger and unrestrained rage. Hyde is described as an animal at times, and is often depicted as ape-like in behavior, for example, “with ape-like fury. he was trampling his victim under foot and hailing down a storm of blows. . .”(60)
The violence of Hyde towards Carew is an attack on the upper class and upon the constructs of society. The murder is especially horrifying in its unprovoked nature and in the irrationality of the act. It was a violent act brought on by rage and nothing more. The crime was not a robbery, which at least would offer some explanation, but everything of value was left on Carew’s body; “A purse and a gold watch were found upon the victim. . . .”(61) This crime was also not about revenge of any sort, which could provide some sort of rationale for the bludgeoning.
Crime itself is representative of a less civilized society, and these were precisely the dregs that Victorian properness attempted to hide. This murder scene is a representation of an interaction of a lower class character with an upper class character where the lower class person is in a non-servile position. The maids and butlers of the story are all providing a service to their employers, while Hyde is his own man. Dr. Jekyll has provided Hyde, and himself as he is Hyde, with money and opportunity to roam unrestrained by polite society. Dr. Jekyll cannot indulge in rude, violent or self-gratifying behaviors as himself, so becoming Hyde allows him to explore these urges that challenge society and every construct that he would typically be held to because he was a member of the upper class. Hyde has a lot of freedom and unrestrained emotional energy and this freedom from society and proper behavior translated into violence and disregard for the world.
Hyde is free from the restraints of polite society and is not represented in a servile position except for when he runs errands for his alter ego, Dr. Jekyll. The representation of Hyde as a lower class man who is not restricted by proper behavior and not serving the upper class can create a certain anxiety in the wealthy characters because they do not have control over him. Hyde’s rudeness and violence show a general disregard for everything that upper class Victorians held dear in the constructed society and bonds of properness that the society enforced. The lower class did not care as much for these mannerisms and were not as compelled to hold to the etiquette of upper society.

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