Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde · For Pupils · literature · Reading skills

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – a strange case of abjection

Three definitions of the term ‘abjection’:

  1. Abjection: the state of casting out or being cast out. From the Latin abjectus, which means to ‘reject’ or ‘throw away’.
  2. Abjection according to French theorist Julia Kristeva: that which defies borders, the zone between being and non-being. It is filth and pollution, decay and the corpse.
  3. Abjection: Mr Hyde.

I want to talk about this idea of abjection and its place in the novel, paying particular attention to Stevenson’s decision to make Soho the location of Hyde’s residence in London. It is clear from looking at the history of Soho why Stevenson decided on this location for Hyde’s ‘hideaway’. According to the website ‘London Particulars’:

“For as long as the West End has been there, it’s led a dual existence. For the most part, it’s been a wealthy place, but with little sinful pockets dotted around. Soho, Covent Garden and Haymarket have traditionally been the worst fleshpots of the West End” [1]

It is interesting to see this phrase ‘dual existence’ applied to Soho and even in this brief description you can see why Stevenson chose Soho for Hyde’s residence – after all, it echoes the key themes within the novel of duplicity, double identity and duality. Historically, Soho has been associated with bohemian artists and cultural icons  – see the K. West location on the cover of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust album and the famous Marquee club. But it has also been associated with filth and squalor: in the mid-nineteenth century, because of its lack of sanitation, Soho was affected by an outbreak of cholera which killed around 500 people. By the end of the nineteenth century, many of the wealthy residents had left the area and had been replaced by music halls, gin palaces and prostitutes – for 200 years or so it has been associated with the sex industry. It still retains this reputation today.

Just look at the description of Soho from the chapter ‘The Carew Murder Case’:

It was by this time about nine in the morning, and the first fog of the season. A great chocolate-coloured pall lowered over heaven, but the wind was continually charging and routing these embattled vapours; so that as the cab crawled from street to street, Mr. Utterson beheld a marvellous number of degrees and hues of twilight; for here it would be dark like the back-end of evening; and there would be a glow of a rich, lurid brown, like the light of some strange conflagration; and here, for a moment, the fog would be quite broken up, and a haggard shaft of daylight would glance in between the swirling wreaths. The dismal quarter of Soho seen under these changing glimpses, with its muddy ways, and slatternly passengers, and its lamps, which had never been extinguished or had been kindled afresh to combat this mournful reinvasion of darkness, seemed, in the lawyer’s eyes, like a district of some city in a nightmare. The thoughts of his mind, besides, were of the gloomiest dye; and when he glanced at the companion of his drive, he was conscious of some touch of that terror of the law and the law’s officers, which may at times assail the most honest.

As the cab drew up before the address indicated, the fog lifted a little and showed him a dingy street, a gin palace, a low French eating house, a shop for the retail of penny numbers and twopenny salads, many ragged children huddled in the doorways, and many women of many different nationalities passing out, key in hand, to have a morning glass; and the next moment the fog settled down again upon that part, as brown as umber, and cut him off from his blackguardly surroundings. This was the home of Henry Jekyll’s favourite; of a man who was heir to a quarter of a million sterling.

It is interesting to see the predominance of the colour ‘brown’ here: ‘chocolate-coloured pall’, ‘lurid brown’ ‘muddy ways’, and ‘brown as umber’. Brown suggests dirt, mud, filth but also excrement: Stevenson absolutely builds an atmosphere of filth in this passage. The more you unpick this description, the more the analogy works: the verb ‘crawled’ reminds me of a dung beetle making its way through these layers of pollution; the ‘hues of twilight’ and the ‘glow’ of a ‘strange conflagration’ suggest some kind of sulphurous light like those emanating from something like marsh-gas. The intensity of the description is fantastic and creates an overwhelming atmosphere of a polluted environment. Is it merely coincidence that Stevenson refers to the ‘back-end’ of evening? Think also of Hyde as a disease then – a physical embodiment of Soho’s cholera: for example, Jekyll describes how he became ‘a creature eaten up and emptied by fever’. Hyde embodies Soho just as much as Soho symbolises him.

Soho is a place of abjection – a place of filth and decay, and if Soho is the ‘waste product’ of London, then Hyde is the waste product of Jekyll!

Later on in the passage, Stevenson also explicitly points out another aspect of Soho. According to British History on-line, Soho is the most ‘cosmopolitan’ of London’s quarters and this is reflected in Stevenson’s reference to ‘the many women of different nationalities’ who were ‘passing out ‘ for a ‘morning glass’. Here, Stevenson emphasises their difference – they too are out of place and suggest the idea of abjection through the idea of them being cast out (perhaps by their homeland or by their Soho neighbours).  Utterson’s presence there also reminds us of Soho’s other-worldliness: ‘like a district of some city in a nightmare’, it also reminds us of the novel’s Gothic conventions. It is a place that appears to be isolated from the rest of London: the fog, you will notice, lifts and then descends, ‘cutting’ Utterson off from the world around him. Utterson has crossed a border into another world and it too abjects him.

And, of course, Hyde is also an example of something which breaks borders – the borders of the body and the mind (Jekyll’s): think about the number of references to breaking out and breaking free that Stevenson uses in Jekyll’s descriptions of his transformations. Jekyll’s transgressions also suggest abjection and breaking free of borders (and rules). His licentious behaviour is never specified but there are several references to how Jekyll gives in to his base desires. As a young man, he was ‘committed to a profound duplicity of life’: embarking on a voyage of sensual discovery, he ‘laid aside restraint and plunged in shame’. Stevenson is keen to point out how, how Jekyll (even when not in the guise of Hyde) falls ‘to the assaults of temptation’ and gives in to ‘undignified’ pleasures. Abjection could also refer to ‘aberrant sexualities’ of the period. Much has been made of a ‘queer reading’ of the novel: the circle of middle-aged professional men ‘walking out’ with each other (in fact, the phrase ‘walking out’ carries Victorian associations of ‘courtship’, a kind of ritual of romance!), the lack of key female characters, and Utterson’s fear of Hyde “stealing like a thief to Harry’s bedside; poor Harry, what a wakening!” all offer convincing evidence for this particular sub-text.

And I haven’t mentioned the references to atavism – Hyde as an ape which reflects Victorian conflict between science and religion. And the criminology of Cesare Lobroso who believed that outward physical features reflect the inner soul just as Hyde’s ‘troglodytic’ appearance can be seen as a sign of his inner evil.  Once again, Hyde is marked out as ‘Other’, different – an example of abjection.

[1] https://londonparticulars.wordpress.com/tag/jekyll-and-hyde/

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