Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde · literature · Other stuff · Uncategorized

Post script to “The Flaneur in Jekyll and Hyde”: uncanny homes

Michel de Certeau is one of the foremost thinkers on everyday space. In an essay on walking written in 1984, (to be found in his book ‘The Practice of Everyday Life’) he wrote that walking is very much akin to a speech act, and that stories begin at ground level with footsteps. This is rather exciting when thinking about Jekyll and Hyde as it is with walking that Utterson and Enfield’s story begins; it is with walking that Hyde’s story begins too – his trampling of the girl as described by Enfield is perhaps one of the most dramatic introductions to a character in literature; and it is with a walk that Utterson takes the reader to Jekyll’s house – to find him not at home. Walking performs a syndetic function, linking place to place, and there is something nomadic about the function of walking in the novel.

No-one wants to be at home.

Jekyll is often not at home, or cowers away from sight when he is seen at home. Houses are often unwelcoming or unsightly: The description of Jekyll’s ‘rear entry’ has a ‘door, which was equipped with neither bell nor knocker, was blistered and distained.” Decrepit, neglected and closed off to visitors. The other aspect of Jekyll’s house is no different: it stands amidst “a square of ancient, handsome houses, now for the most part decayed from their high estate”. Houses reflect their owners, it seems. When Utterson is taken to Jekyll’s laboratory, it is described as a “dingy, windowless structure”, lacking the means of vision, blinded, closed off to the world.

Homes are also places of horror or of deception: Jekyll throws parties in an attempt to deceive himself that he is free of the spectre of Hyde; Lanyon is stricken with terror in his own home by Hyde’s transformation into Jekyll, an experience which sends Lanyon to his grave. Homes are spaces of fear and nightmares. Upon his return home from his first walk with Enfield, Utterson falls into a fitful sleep, trouble by dreams in which no-one stands still, or is allowed to rest: the incubus which hovers over the sleeping Jekyll commands him to “rise and do its bidding”.

Or else they are transient places: Jekyll/Hyde do not stay in one place too long. Jekyll admits that he is ‘a stranger’ in his own house; he lives in a house “that is no longer mine”. He admits to being ‘houseless’, hunted, “the common quarry of mankind” as the demon inside him grows more and more murderous. If he returns home, it will signify death: “If I sought to enter by the house, my own servants would consign me to the gallows”. Hyde’s rooms in Soho have been hastily vacated by the time Utterson arrives there.

Or else homes are places of isolation: Utterson lives alone and his walks with Enfield help him break the monotony of his loneliness. After hearing Enfield’s story, he comes “home to his bachelor house in sombre spirits and sat down to dinner without relish.” But he doesn’t stick around long before he is off again to see Lanyon who lives alone, musing unhelpfully on the past (‘I wish the friends could be younger’). The maid who witnesses the brutal murder of Carew lives alone too. And houses can be prisons: Jekyll sits behind a half-open window “like some disconsolate prisoner”; later, Jekyll declares that ‘the inmates of my house were locked in the most rigorous hours of slumber”.

The most important ‘house’ in the novella is the body itself which is of course an unstable place. For Jekyll, his pursuit of knowledge leads him to consider whether the different parts of his soul “could be housed in separate identities”. For Jekyll, the house as body is a prison which confines the true spirit of man; by breaking down the metaphorical doors to the house, then the soul of man can be free.

For Freud, the home is an uncanny space and reminds men of their first home: the womb-space. In a novel without women (on the whole), the house performs a Freudian function, but it is an uncertain one. The house-as-womb is a place which men find uncomfortable – it is a notion which perhaps underscores the complex attitudes to gender in the novel itself. If we read the house as womb-space, then is there an underlying misogyny in the text? Jekyll fails to mention his mother in his final statement – his father is mentioned three times however (Cia Shuo and Liu Dan have written here about the unresolved Oedipal complex in Stevenson’s life and attribute this to the treatment of women in Jekyll and Hyde).

The uncanny derives from the term ‘unheimlich’ which translates as ‘unhomely’ – and the unhomeliness in the story leads to uncanny doublings and repetitions which are enduring tropes of the uncanny text. The house is a place of horror, transience, and it gives birth to nightmares and monsters. Barbara Creed coined the term ‘monstrous feminine’ in her fabulous book on horror films in which labyrinths and haunted houses perform the function of the castrating female. In Jekyll and Hyde, houses seem to perform a similar function. The actual space where Hyde is created lies in the depths of Jekyll’s house, at the centre of a spatial labyrinth – its intra-uterine iconography a spatial metaphor for Hyde’s place of conception. Like his predecessor Victor Frankenstein, Henry Jekyll attempts to create life without the aid of a female companion and the life that they both create is both unnatural and ultimately destructive.

To go back to de Certeau, he writes that ‘to walk is to lack a place’. And so the walking in Jekyll and Hyde admits of this theory perhaps. The men in the novel do not have a ‘home’ and so walking reflects the fact that they are cut adrift from their roots. The fear of women – present in their absence and in the presentation of homes and houses – and the rejection of mothers and women in the novella may well be attributed to Stevenson’s failed negotiation of the Oedipus complex, or it might just as well reflect the misogyny inherent in an era riddled with narratives of failed masculinity and the destabilising of grand mythologies which question men’s role and position in the world. In the end, the concept of ‘lacking a place’ is an important one in the novel and results in the novel’s inherent dynamic, its foregrounding of movement, but it also reflects a deep-seated anxiety about the self, about sexuality and about space which is still resonant today.

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