In my last blog I discussed the act of walking and in particular the figure of the flâneuse in Ruth Orkin’s famous 1951 photograph of a woman walking in Florence. I also briefly touched on the ambulant subjects in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and I want to say a little more about it here. Set in fin-de-siècle London, the novel is, amongst other things, Stevenson’s paean to the flâneur, a figure emerging from the work of Charles Baudelaire and Edgar Allan Poe and who is the epitome of the strolling, voyeuristic male figure whose sojourns through the streets of the metropolis have become a symbol of leisured masculinity: the flâneur’s gaze appropriates the city streets and brings with it a sense of mastery over its subjects. Categorically male, an urban stroller, loafer, idler even, the flâneur can be likened to the dandy and the Bohemian: an effete bourgeois, a consumer of the city, savouring the sights of the modern world and capturing all beneath his male gaze. He is both public and anonymous, singular and unremarkable – he is, as Poe calls him, ‘the man in the crowd’, but he is also a man OF the crowd.
But the flâneur is a complex figure. Lauren Elkin, in her book ‘Flâneuse’, argues that no-one can really define the flâneur: his meaning is as meandering as the labyrinthine city streets through which he makes his way: a slippery subject who seems to haunt the metropolis. Elkin says that the flaneur is able to ‘understand the city as few inhabitants do’ (2016: 3). And so, he is also a repository of knowledge, an authority of the streets. It is obvious why, for Walter Benjamin, the flâneur is also something of a detective figure, one who is able to read the complex labyrinths of the modern metropolis as if it were a written text. As Rob Shields writes ‘the flâneur is a detective seeking clues who reads people’s characters not only from the physiognomy of their faces but via a social physiognomy of the streets” (1994: 63): the flâneur watches the crowd and negotiates the increasingly complex urban spaces that emerge at the end of the nineteenth century.
And it is this complexity that also ultimately finds the flâneur lost in the crowd. So for Benjamin the flâneur is something of an alienated individual, a ‘native’ of the city, yes, but one who is also feeling a little bit displaced: perhaps in attempting to observe humanity from a distance, like H.G. Wells’ Martians at the beginning of War of the Worlds, he has also become distanced from his very subject. Standing back, paring his nails like the omniscient narrator of a story to which he is no longer belongs, he watches as the city moves on – perhaps like Wells’ other protagonist in The Time Machine who, as time unfolds rapidly before his eyes, observes the shifting clothing styles on the fashion mannequins in a fast-forward film that suddenly begins to lose meaning. The flâneur thus becomes an ‘urban native’, one who is a foreigner in his own town. Benjamin suggests that in this way, the flâneur comes to symbolise one who has lost control and perhaps even become savage in his nature. It is as if the flâneur, in his attempt to consume the world around him, has lost his real identity
As I attempt to map out the shifting definitions of the flâneur, I can see just how relevant this is to Stevenson’s characters and in particular his fractured protagonist. An investigation into the flâneur thus provides an excess of riches to help in our understanding of the text. A great deal of walking goes on in the book which begins with Enfield and Utterson strolling through the streets of London on a Sunday afternoon. Their walking is leisurely but apparently unfulfilling, ‘singularly dull’ and Stevenson tells us that their acquaintances are perhaps bemused at their incongruous relationship: Enfield is the ‘man about town’ whilst Utterson is ‘austere’ and melancholy. Much has been written about the latent homosexuality that exists in the novel and the apparent awkwardness that accompanies their walks may well have its roots in the ‘love that dare not speak its name’. However, what does connect them is the act of walking. Both characters are professional, bourgeois and seem at ease with the city. In his apparent free-sprit, Enfield may well symbolise the flâneur as Bohemian or dandy. We never learn much about him, and although Alan Sandison suggests he has something of the detective about him, (“he is a keen observer, well aware of human foibles” [1996:232]), he is not the greatest, that’s for sure: it takes him a long time to work out that it was Jekyll’s back door from which Hyde emerged. (‘What an ass you must have thought me,” Enfield remarks to Utterson as they walk towards Jekyll’s house, “not to know that this was a back way to Dr. Jekyll’s! It was partly your own fault that I found it out, even when I did.”).
Utterson on the other hand is much more successful in his detection work: he ‘haunts’ the streets determined to uncover the truth about Jekyll’s new friend, claiming that he will play Mr Seek to Mr Hyde and he dreams of pursuing Hyde through the “wider labyrinths of the lamplighted city”. Utterson negotiates his way to Jekyll’s house and then to Hyde’s lair in the benighted Soho which Stevenson describes as “like a district of some city in a nightmare”. Finally, he arrives at Jekyll’s laboratory, the dark heart of the labyrinth in which Utterson will meet the symbolic Minotaur of Hyde. A lawyer by profession, Utterson appropriates the streets of London, using them as a map to solve the mystery of Jekyll and Hyde.
Image courtesy of https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/184366178474134816/
For Rob Shields, the flâneur’s exhibitionist tendencies mark him out as someone lacking in self-control: a “figure of excess” who “indulges in non-rational pleasures”. This of course leads us to the other flâneur in the novella – Mr Hyde himself. Just as for Shields the flâneur is “an incarnation of a new, urban form of masculine passion” (1994: 64)”, so Hyde is the embodiment of evil, or at least of Jekyll’s own wish to satisfy the hedonistic desires in which he longs to indulge. Once he breaks free of Jekyll, he can also reject the mores and social codes which bind Jekyll to an unwanted morality:
There was something strange in my sensations, something indescribably new and, from its very novelty, incredibly sweet. I felt younger, lighter, happier in body; within I was conscious of a heady recklessness, a current of disordered sensual images running like a millrace in my fancy, a solution of the bonds of obligation, an unknown but not an innocent freedom of the soul.
And Hyde’s first act in his new skin? He goes for a walk.
I crossed the yard, wherein the constellations looked down upon me, I could have thought, with wonder, the first creature of that sort that their unsleeping vigilance had yet disclosed to them; I stole through the corridors, a stranger in my own house; and coming to my room, I saw for the first time the appearance of Edward Hyde.
Walking is linked to release, a chance to discover one’s true self. Hyde finds himself the centre of a gaze: his arrogance and vanity lead him to believe that Heaven itself is an admirer of his genius and scientific prowess. However, he is also ‘a stranger in [his] own house’ and so Hyde echoes the notion of the alienated flâneur – a foreigner in his own town. In separating the two selves, Jekyll has abjected that part of his psyche, the id. Hyde is a figure of excess not merely because of the ‘depraved’ and ‘vile’ pleasures in which he indulges, but he is also a remainder: the waste product of Jekyll, cast aside from its host and has become an outcast in his world.
When Hyde walks, it is linked with violence. Stevenson describes how Hyde “walked fast, hunted by his fears, chattering to himself, skulking through the less frequented thoroughfares, counting the minutes that still divided him from midnight.” His ‘light step’ is linked to a sense of freedom, of ecstatic release from the confines of the repressed Jekyll. Rather than strolling and ambling, Hyde’s walking is also more purposive and direct. He ‘stumps’ along; he walks over a child; he ‘walks into a cellar door’ to retrieve a cheque. Another time, Stevenson describes Hyde ‘skulking’ through the back streets of the city. Rob Shields suggests that ‘the flâneur is a potentially treacherous fiend and a dysfunctional social element who provokes the need for discipline’ (1994: 71). One look at Hyde disgusts Utterson, Enfield and the doctor who is called to care for the injured girl. Although he is in the crowd, Hyde is not of it: he does not fit. He is outside, an outcast, a remainder.
Hyde is a creature of the outside, of exteriors whilst Jekyll is one of interiors. We first meet Hyde trampling on a young girl in the dead of night. He kills Carew outside, observed by the maid watching from a bedroom window. On the other hand, Jekyll is mainly inside. The first two occasions we are introduced to Jekyll, he is at home. When Enfield and Utterson walk out a second time in ‘The Incident at the Window’, they observe Jekyll skulking behind his laboratory window, in thrall to the demon that lives inside him. Jekyll does walk outside – in fact he talks of walking at least five times in the final chapter. Four of these are in a metaphorical or reflective way. He talks of how the division of the self might allow the morally upright side of him to “ walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path”. Later on in the chapter, he reflects on the nature of his being itself, aware of the fragility of self and soul which is confined in the “so solid body in which we walk attired.” He even reminisces on walking with his father almost as if walking signifies a time of happiness, a childhood innocence: a time when he could walk abroad in the light, away from the shadows. However, when Jekyll does venture outside, it is interesting that he turns into Hyde.
I was stepping leisurely across the court after breakfast, drinking the chill of the air with pleasure, when I was seized again with those indescribable sensations that heralded the change.
In another incident, Jekyll involuntarily metamorphoses into Hyde whilst sitting on a park bench in Regents Park. Caged inside for so long, the figure of Hyde embraces the delights of the outside world. A sensory being rather than the rational and repressed Jekyll, Hyde is at one with the tactility of the streets.
The apocalyptic battle between Jekyll and his alter-ego occurs inside, but there is something liminal about Jekyll’s laboratory.
The far greater proportion of the building was occupied by the theatre, which filled almost the whole ground storey and was lighted from above, and by the cabinet, which formed an upper story at one end and looked upon the court. A corridor joined the theatre to the door on the by-street; and with this the cabinet communicated separately by a second flight of stairs. There were besides a few dark closets and a spacious cellar.
It takes a lot of walking to get to it and there is an echo of the labyrinths of the metropolitan streets in Stevenson’s description of the location. It is connected yet distant and seems to operate in another world, one apart from that inhabited by Utterson and his contemporaries.
In the chapter describing the murder of Carew, a tension erupts at the confluence of these walking styles. Carew is described as a ‘beautiful gentleman’ who is ‘drawing near along the lane’: the leisured manner of his walking is more akin to the bourgeois flâneur. On the other hand, Hyde is ‘advancing’: there is a sense of determination, speed and intent to Hyde’s movement which immediately suggests conflict – indeed, the verb ‘advancing’ carries with it militaristic undertones. Here then it seems the purposive walk of Hyde meets the more leisured strolling of Carew and Stevenson is keen to point up the different styles of movement of the two bodies. The description of Carew has connotations of femininity: he ‘bowed’ and has a ‘pretty manner of politeness’, but it also suggests an old-world arrogance and complacency. Carew ‘accosted’ Hyde and some have seen reflected in this a hint at Carew’s latent homosexuality (see James Campbell’s 2008 article in The Guardian in which he comments on how Victorian readers would have seen in the word ‘accosted’ more than a veiled allusion to ‘forbidden liaisons’). The phrase ‘well-founded self-content’ also hints at an air of superiority. Perhaps here there is a clash between the effeminate flâneur and the brutish masculinity of Hyde – or even Hyde’s brutish self-denial of his own sexuality. The violence that ensues not only confirms the horrific nature of Hyde but also seems to be a clash of worlds, of manners. It is the civil world versus nature unleashed, an incident which underscores all the Darwinian themes inherent in the novel.
So what is going on in the streets of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde? What is Stevenson telling us about the flâneur? In its ambiguity and its many faces, the complexities of the flâneur resemble the novella’s eponymous protagonists. The flâneur’s intimate connection with the nineteenth century metropolis makes him an urban anatomist, dissecting the streets beneath his voyeuristic gaze and thus the city becomes a body to investigate in much the same way that one of the inspirations for the story, John Hunter, collected bodies to appease his “voracious appetite for knowledge” (Rankin, 2007).
Walking and mobility drive the dynamics of the story, and in its different incarnations we can see walking as an important thread which also illustrates the many facets of humanity present in the novella. There is the curious spectator wandering the streets at night looking for stories or solutions to mysteries, the flâneur as detective embodied in the character of Utterson. Then there is the idle urban strolling of Enfield and Jekyll. Finally, there is the skulking presence of Hyde, the figure of excess whose walking is dynamic, purposive and ultimately destructive.
It is the streets of the metropolis that draw out this excessive split perhaps – the London of nineteenth century England that is itself falling into fin de siècle decadence. The metropolis is the place of the displaced and the complex figure(s) of Jekyll and Hyde fit neatly into this category – Jekyll through his half-concealed hedonistic pleasures and Hyde as atavistic creature of the shadows. Neither is at home in the world they inhabit.
Increased urbanisation and the growth of cities at the end of the nineteenth century begin to alienate the flâneur until they feel a sense of displacement from the very cities which they once ‘possessed’. Perhaps this is what Stevenson is trying to capture in setting the book in a London that is as much Edinburgh. Edinburgh itself, as James Campbell suggests is a ‘Jekyll and Hyde city’ with ‘a cloudy inner life … shielded by a genteel exterior’ (2008). Ian Rankin’s excellent 2007 documentary on Stevenson’s novella also details the comparisons between the novel and Edinburgh, whilst in 2010 Rankin suggested that it may well have been self-preservation and a need to hide his own secrets that ultimately led Stevenson to make the switch to London as the story’s ultimate location. However, London works as a location to the novella. The Soho setting, with that region’s reputation for vice and ‘sordid neglect’ is perfect for the abode of a man who glories in the ‘unbridled’ pleasures of the flesh, whilst its city streets, at times silent and forbidding, and at others crowded with the different strata of humanity, mirror the tensions and the ambiguities present in the text and this uncanny doubling present in the setting is replicated in the characters and adds to the feelings of alienation that pervade Stevenson’s tale.
The many faces of the flâneur – detective Utterson, Hyde the hedonistic savage, the leisured bourgeois figures of Enfield, Jekyll and Carew all combine to present the flâneur as a complex figure of fin-de-siecle modernity. By touring the streets of London through his literary flâneurs, perhaps Stevenson is trying to synthesise his own uncertainties about identity and place. The flâneur becomes a symbol of someone who wants to immerse themselves in the new metropolis but also feels excluded from it. Stevenson takes us on a walk through London’s streets in order to present the inextricable link between place, space and bodies and it is through the activity of walking itself that we can know the city and convince it to yield its secrets.
Elkin, L. (2016) Flâneuse: women walk the city in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London (London, Chatto and Windus.)
Sandison, A. (1996) Robert Louis Stevenson and the Appearance of Modernism: A Future Feeling (London, Palgrave Macmillan)
Shields, R. (1994) Fancy Footwork: Walter Benjamin’s Notes on Flanerie. In Tester,K. ed (1994) The Flâneur (London, Routledge).
Campbell, J. (2008) The Beast WIthin https://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/dec/13/dr-jekyll-mr-hyde-stevenson
Rankin, I. (2010) Ian Rankin on The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/aug/16/ian-rankin-dr-jekyll-mr-hyde
Rankin’s documentary can be found here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b007qyzv/ian-rankin-investigates-dr-jekyll-and-mr-hyde