A Student Model

On Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
with Valerie Martins' Mary Reilly
July 22, 2000
English 202.B01: Gothics and Ghosts, Realism and Romance
Question # 16f
The Class System in The Two Novels by Jennifer Klopsis

The First Three Parts, or Introductory Framing and Context

Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Edinburgh on November 13, 1850. The stark contrast between the elegant New Town of Edinburgh, where he grew up, and the slums of the Old Town may have given him a perspective for creating the settings of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. As a child too, Stevenson was often in poor health, and he experienced intense nightmares. He later said that many of his ideas for essays and stories came to him in his dreams ('A Chapter of Dreams'). Since his mother was often ill, he was educated by an old nurse, Alison Cunningham, who told him stories of demons, devils, and ghosts which he never forgot. This background laid the foundation for his inspiration in his adult writing.

As a college student, Stevenson also had experiences which can be related to his novel. He had a reputation for heavy drinking and perhaps going to prostitutes or 'women of the streets'. He dressed and acted in a Bohemian way. He was a rebel. This 'immoral' behavior may have given him insight into man's dual nature, for in later life he also wrote austerely about morality and could behave strictly and sternly himself. He married a woman who had been married before (a definite rebellion against his religious parents), and who was much older than him. Her name was Fanny Osborne.

After some extravagant adventures, including a trip across the US by Stevenson to rescue Fanny from her first husband, the marriage took place in 1880. He and Fanny eventually moved with her son to a house in the Westbourne area of Bournemouth. This is where he wrote The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Fanny criticised the first version harshly and Stevenson destroyed it. He burnt it and we have the second version after it was revised. He later said that the first destroyed manuscript was the best work he ever did.

He also had to take drugs to keep him alive as he was often very ill throughout his life. This too is reflected in the novel. His poor health finally caught up with him after he moved to Somoa even though he claimed it was a place whose climate was good for him. He died suddenly of an aneuryism at age 44.

Valerie Metcalf was born on March 14, 1947 in Sedalia, Montana. She became Valerie Martin after marriage and had one daughter. Her first husband was an artist and her novel, The Great Divorce may record some of her experiences with him -- though indirectly. She writes stories in the tradition of Edgar Allen Poe, and has long admired the work of Stevenson. Her book is dedicated to him and her father, a sea captain. She has said it is her goal to communicate uncanny and startling states of mind and to show how people are closely connected to their animal heritage. Violence and the uncanny are strong in her work. All this is seen in Mary Reilly which is a work which makes her Stevenson's 'literary daughter'.

There are many themes in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It is a parable about the deeper levels of human nature. The central theme revolves around the dual nature of man. Dr. Jekyll apparently lives the moral life and has a mask that people want to show to others, and Mr Hyde lives out a side of ourselves we like to deny and don't want others to see. The novel places much emphasis on the use of a drug -- and perhaps alcohol. It's not clear what Dr Jekyll's sins are and Mr Hyde may act very badly because he becomes drunk. Dr Jekyll concocts a drug that transforms him into Mr Hyde. The drug causes him to look and to act completely differently from the way the world supposes he is capable of. Jekyll starts off slowly with this drug, but gradually he loses control of it -- or himself. He becomes addicted to being Hyde, and the addiction is so strong that transformations to Hyde begins to take pace even without his using the drug (i.e., consciously willing the change).

There is also a strong emphasis on cruelty and sex in the novel. When Jekyll hides Hyde away, and when Hyde prepares an apartment for someone whose sex we are not told, it may be that Stevenson is hinting at homosexuality. It may also be that Hyde simply keeps a woman as his mistress in a brothel. There are hints of masturbation and other behavior (blood is found all over the place wherever Hyde has sex with women) which suggests sexual transgressions and deviations from what people consider a 'norm' of sexual and social activity.

Mary Reilly is much more realistic, psychological and sociological in its approach to the same story we find in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Stevenson presents his story almost mythically andmorally and philosphically; in Stevenson's brief tale, the fantasy element dominates more and is not explained away at all (though we could believe Jekyll made it all up). At the end of Mary Reilly, there is an explicit attempt at an explanation for what happened, and throughout the story we are asked to understand things in a realistic, psychological, and social way. Martin's atmosphere is much more prosaic; we are in the world of a later 19th century servant girl.

The central themes of Mary Reilly actually deal with gender: Martin shows how the class structure of society controls people, especially women. She also brings the female element into play. There are literally no women in Stevenson's tale. In Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde women are only ambiguously referred to. Valerie retells the story from a woman's point of view: Mary, the servant who describes her close intimacy with Jekyll and Hyde as the servant of both in Jekyll's house. The novel shows how women somtimes find themselves in positions where it is to their advantage to be submissive. Her novel paints a picture of the rigid social hierarchies in existence throughout the nineteenth century. There was a hierarchy of rich and poor, but there were also many subhierarchies within hierarchies. We see a struggle for power among the servants as they fit into a prescribed pecking order. Poole, the Butler, is an important character in Mary Reilly (so too in the film adaptation of the book); in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Poole appears only in one significant scene.

The summary of the story: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a novel about a scientist who literally makes himself into two selves. Mr Hyde is to carry out his amoral desires. We follow the tragedies that ensue. Mary Reilly is a suspenseful novel centering in the young housemaid who lives in the household of Dr Jekyll and becomes involved with both of the doctor's 'identities'; she eventually learns the dark secret that the two men are one. It has a subplot about how she was abused as a child by her father whose themes mirror the main plot taken from Stevenson's book.

The Literary Analysis: #16f: What attitudes are expressed by the authors or the characters in the novels towards the class sytem?

Everyone has a place in the hierarchy of their local communities of which they are acutely aware. It is possible for a person to move up in the ranks through education or other personal achievements and those who have a high standing on the social ladder will do almost anything to stay there. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson and Mary Reilly by Valerie Martin present characters whose actions are determined by their station in life. Dr Jekyll goes to great lengths in order to preserve his good name and Mary struggles to stay within the boundaries of what society expects from her. Dr Jekyll and Mary both experience an inner struggle between what is expected of them and what they secretly long for in life.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde is set in nineteenth-century England at which time a very strict barrier divided the rich from the poor. Those with money and position commanded all the luxuries and respect of everyone, while many of those in the working class spent their lives in some form of servitude to the rich and powerful. Dr Jekyll was a well-respected man of excellent social standing: he is an educated, cultivated gentleman, a physician. He also has a deep desire for respectability. We are also told that he was born "to a large fortune, endowed besides with excellent parts, inclined by nature to industry [and] fond of the respect of the wise and good among [his] fellowman" (Jekyll and Hyde, p. 75). When young, he seemed to be headed for "an honorable and distinguished future" (p. 75).

Despite his high position, or all this while, Dr Jekyll desired and indulged in pleasures his community would not approve of. These seem to be sexual or have to do with drinking to excess: they are done in private. He also went to prostitutes. However, he "found it hard to reconcile" this life "with [his] imperious desire to carrry [his] head high" and was forced to hide these dark secrets "with an almost morbid sense of shame" (p. 76). Jekyll realizes that many a man would have bragged about exploits such as his (so there is much hypocrisy in the community), but because of "the high views [he] has set before [himself]," he became "committed to a profound duplicity of life" (p. 76).

Jekyll was fascinated with the idea of a man having two separate identities, and he devoted his scientific studies to finding a way to make that happen. The dual nature he fantasized about would allow him to carry on his unrespectable actions under a separate identity while still maintaining good standing in the community under his original identity . He imagined that "the unjust might go his own way delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastily and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil" (p. 77).

After quite a few unsuccessful attempts, Jekyll at last came up with a successul potion that manifested his evil side in the person of Edwards Hyde. Jekyll now had "two characters and two appearances, one was wholly evil, and the other was still the old Henry Jekyll" (p. 80). Dr Jekyll knew that in order to protect his upstanding reputation, he must "make [his] preparations with the most studious care" (p. 80). He set up a separate house in Soho for Mr Hyde to reside in and found a "silent and unscupulous" woman to keep house there (p. 80). Dr Jekyll even went to great lengths to familiarize his own house servants with Mr Hyde and drew up a will leaving everything to Hyde in the event of his death or disappearance. Jekyll believed that these measures "fortified [him] on every side" (p. 80). It was of the utmost importance for him to maintain the virtuous and respected standing of Dr Jekyll in society.

The novel Mary Reilly tells the story of Jekyll and Hyde from the point of view of a housemaid named Mary. Mary is one of the poor working class who spends her life in service to a rich, upper class household, in this case Dr Jekyll's. She knows her place in society and does not dare to step outside the bounds of what is expected of her. When Dr Jeykll wants to speak to her about her scars (a result of her father's sadistic cruelty to her when she was a child), she thinks to herself, "How could I speak to him, especially on the subject he had proposed?" (Mary Reilly, p. 9). She sees Jekyll as her Master and she is the servant. She doesn't believe she is worthy of his conversation.

Mary constantly notices the differences between herself and the upper-class Dr Jekyll. As the doctor examines her scars, she compares his hands with hers and notes that his hands look as if he never performed any physical work: they were "more refined and gentlemanly . . . almost like a lady's" and she wants to hide her own "rough red hands" (p. 10). Mary had romantic thoughts about the doctor but tried to stop herself from dwelling on them at length. At night she would, however, lay thinking of him, and re-feeling through her imagination "his cool fingers against [her] neck", but then she would remind herself this "was a thought that [she] had no busiess to be entertaining" (p. 14). She then gave herself "a talking to on the subject of a servant's foolishness and how wrong it is ever to have fancies outside of one's station as it always leads to misery" (p. 14). Unlike Jekyll, Mary works hard to repress her amoral self.

Mary is also different from the other servants because she can read and write. Even though she tells herself that she is content with her life, she longs for something more. She thinks about her status and those of others. She thinks about how her father's drinking was the result of his misery at his poverty and how her mother had no one to turn to in order to save her from him. Her mother had to put her in service to keep her safe from her father. Mary lives an isolated existence. When she thinks to herself that the doctor has forgotten his request to her that she write the story of her childhood down, she laments in her journal: "This cast me down very much and I went to sleep feeling tired to the bones and sad, which shows what comes of wanting to be important and feeling different from others in the same station" (p. 17).

In her novel, Valerie Martin concentrates on the hierarchy of power within the ranks of the servants (these hardly appear in Stevenson's novel). In Mary Reilly, in the house of Dr Jekyll, Mr Poole is the boss who gives orders to the other servants. He is also in charge of "who is hired and who let go" (p. 18). The life of the female servant is very restricted. Mary works from dawn to dusk, with half a day off. When Mary's mother dies, Poole says "it is not [her] place to ask for leave [to make arrangements for a funeral] as it put Master on the spot" (p. 176). Yet Poole is sympathetic to Mary when he learns she has lost her mother. When Dr Jekyll attempts to give Mary a direct order, she explains to him that it is Poole's "place to tell [her] what [Dr Jekyll[ wants and not the other way around" (p. 19). When Dr Jekyll says that Mary has "a fairly profound view of social order and propriety", she replies "every servant knows as much if he's any wish to stay in service" (p. 19).

Many people's actions are ruled by either a desire to stay in or rise above their position in a social class. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Mary Reilly show how people can be trapped or controlled and twisted by their roles in society. Dr Jekyll felt driven by strong amoral desires partly because he was so repressed. He then resorted to exploring them secretly in order to protect his good standing. This led to a crazed schizophrenia, the creation of a truly evil man, and eventually Dr Jekyll's death by (in effect) suicide. Today there are people who may be said to have done the same thing -- though not through the use of magical potions -- and their dual lives backfire on them. Mary dreams of rising above her station in life, even though she denies this; she is attracted to Jekyll because he is higher than she. Hyde reminds her of her father. Her life too resembles the lives of many people in our society. Both these novels have much to say to us about the class system and public versus private selves that we can still profit from today.

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