This series of blog posts is inspired by some of the work I have been doing on my PhD and in particular Andrea Arnold’s film version of Wuthering Heights. I have just finished reading a chapter from a book by Deborah Lutz called ‘The Bronte Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects”, a chapter which describes the Bronte’s fascination with walking. Lutz’s premise is interesting in its use of a theory referred to as ‘material culture’ or ‘thing theory’. The basic idea of thing theory is that the material artefacts of the world can reveal much about our society. So far, so obvious. However, we’re not just talking great skyscrapers, Ozymandian relics, or other architectural wonders: what thing theory also focuses on are the usual, day to day objects and artefacts that make up real history: the gas mask your history teacher brings in to school to illuminate a lesson on world war one, for example. If you think about it, thing theory is all around us: from the BBC’s History of the World in 100 Objects to The Antiques Roadshow – we are always reading into the lives of others through the things they created, owned, treasured, discarded.
Thing theory examines the relationship between ‘things’ and the world around it; to look at things is to look at a text closely, to explore how one object sits in relation to another and how each is illuminated by the other: as Lutz describes it, “thing theory uses objects to explore the story and the culture in which the tale is embedded” (Lutz, xxiii). Of course, the whole notion of thing theory is open to ridicule – where does analysis end and speculative re-imagining begin? To what extent do we prioritise an examination of the three bowls, the three chairs and the three beds in Goldilocks over the moral of the tale itself? In To Kill a Mockingbird, is there any material significance in the tyre that Jem uses to roll into the Radley House? Or is it just an object of play? Is there a danger of missing the wood for the sake of the trees? Bill Brown is one of the leading exponents of thing theory: for him the difference between objects and things is that objects sit in the background, whilst things catch our attention. Is the tyre in To Kill a Mockingbird an object, whilst the bulb that Atticus removes from the jailhouse porch before the lynch mob arrives a thing? Or is the whole discussion a complete red herring?
For me, as a film studies student, things are important. Ask the set-dresser of any film to tell you that things and objects aren’t. But perhaps just as any other form of analysis, thing theory is dependent upon our own relationship to these things. Lutz again: “as much as I favour the idea of inanimate things having lives concealed from us, I still feel the object’s meaning – its slumbering life – comes from our own desires and passions, the shadows we let play over it” (Lutz, xxiii); or as Jamie Brummitt observes “things are material presences animated by metaphysical presences”. According to Sarah Wasserman, thing theory provides “a perspective [which] emphasizes the ways that humans, objects, and environments exist in multiple, overlapping assemblages that need not always be pried apart and studied for their parts”. This perspective finds its correlation in the dramatic and cinematic concepts of proxemics, montage and mise-en-scene which all place emphasis on the relationships between things in the shot, their positioning on stage or the relationship to each other.
And so, this whole thing (!) got me thinking about the texts we teach and how things can illuminate the text, offer us an alternative perspective or just enable us to look at things more closely. If Lutz can tell the story of the Bronte’s in nine objects, can we tell the story of Jekyll and Hyde in four? Well, I’m going to have a go and the four objects I’ve chosen are the gas-lamps, envelopes, park benches and walking sticks. I don’t know whether any of this will work, but here goes …
Gas-lights in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
THE LINDEN leaves are wet,
The gas-lights flare—
Deep yellow jewels set
In dusky air,
In dim air subtly sweet
With vanished rain.
Where do you call me, where?
O voice that cries!
O murky evening air,
Unsought, unfound, unknown
With faint night-odours blown?
With murmurous plea?
Rosamund Marriott Watson
It’s a Hammer-horror trope: a young woman walks nervously along a lonely London street; the fog swirls menacingly around her feet as if it were a vortex of evil waiting to consume her; somewhere in the distance, she can (rather implausibly given the relative density of the weather conditions) discern footsteps, and she looks back nervously. She stops for a moment beneath the halo of a gas-lamp; its light reassures her, a shield against the unknown, warding off the powers of darkness whilst illuminating her child-like face, her eyes wide now with the certainty that something terrible is out there …
The image of a hazy gas-lamp struggling to light the smog-enveloped city streets is a perennial motif in Victorian ghost-stories, and it rests comfortably in our shared cultural consciousness as a beacon of tradition: it’s probably the first thing that springs to the mind of the set-dresser on a heritage film production; it’s an ever-present on Christmas cards that attempt to capture the fictive nostalgia of a lost Victorian world; and according to Lucy Scott there are still over 1500 of these anachronisms lining the streets of London. It is easy to see why the image is a popular cultural motif. A symbol of the struggle of light against the powers of darkness: in Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem ‘The Lamplighter’, for instance, the child narrator admires the lamplighter Leerie for his ability to bring light to the world and with it a feeling of reassurance.
However, the gas-lamp is not as safe and homely as first thought. The physical lighting of the lamps was a long, arduous task and gas-lights were notoriously unreliable and, of course, dangerous. In reality, the impact of the gas upon the environment was more worrying than the frisson effected by ghostly tales told round Victorian hearths. The link between gas and pollution was a real concern: the danger of explosion, the infection of the soil, the tainting of buildings, the pollution of water, the deterioration of plant life. To some, they are a reminder of a past in which artificial light was not a given: according to Sarah Milan, such lighting was viewed, by many people including those of a religious bent, “as unnatural because it prevented the onset of darkness which was considered part of the God-given cycle of day and night” (1999: 93); whilst gas lighting through its “unnatural control of the environment” is a metaphor for the potential dangers of scientific advances and it is no great leap to see this as another version of the Promethean myth: the Frankenstein’s monster of progress.
It is ironic, then, that the same writer who wrote ‘The Lamplighter’ uses lighting in very different ways in ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. Here, light occupies an uneasy position. The good/evil binary opposition is equated with light/dark respectively, and so it is tempting to extend this to the characters of Jekyll and Hyde. However, this is an uneasy assumption. Whilst Hyde stomps around in the night, we very rarely meet Jekyll by day. On one of his few ventures outdoors he rests on a bench in Regents Park and transforms into Hyde. This uneasy juxtaposition of light and dark is felt when we are first introduced into Jekyll’s milieu by Utterson.
One house, however, second from the corner, was still occupied entire; and at the door of this, which wore a great air of wealth and comfort, though it was now plunged in darkness except for the fanlight, Mr. Utterson stopped and knocked. A well-dressed, elderly servant opened the door.
“Is Dr. Jekyll at home, Poole?” asked the lawyer.
“I will see, Mr. Utterson,” said Poole, admitting the visitor, as he spoke, into a large, low-roofed, comfortable hall paved with flags, warmed (after the fashion of a country house) by a bright, open fire, and furnished with costly cabinets of oak. “Will you wait here by the fire, sir? or shall I give you a light in the dining-room?”
“Here, thank you,” said the lawyer, and he drew near and leaned on the tall fender. This hall, in which he was now left alone, was a pet fancy of his friend the doctor’s; and Utterson himself was wont to speak of it as the pleasantest room in London. But tonight there was a shudder in his blood; the face of Hyde sat heavy on his memory; he felt (what was rare with him) a nausea and distaste of life; and in the gloom of his spirits, he seemed to read a menace in the flickering of the firelight on the polished cabinets and the uneasy starting of the shadow on the roof.
Stevenson draws attention to the ambiguity of Jekyll’s character through the description of the use of light: from the outside, the house is ‘plunged in darkness’ whilst inside a fire burns in the hearth; and yet it is a fire that brings Utterson little warmth and light. Instead, he ‘shudders’ and cannot escape the gloomy shadows that seem to recall, for him, the phantasmagoria of his earlier nightmare. Light itself, as Stevenson explicitly states, is linked to menace in this passage, and instead of the usual connotations of goodness and positivity, the images of fire conjure up demonic, infernal associations. And it is, after all, by the light of the moon that the maid-servant witnesses the violent destruction of Sir Danvers Carew by the demonic Hyde.
The presence of gas-lamps equally illustrates the slipperiness of the light/dark opposition. Whilst gas-lamps were designed to make London safer, in Jekyll and Hyde Stevenson turns the usual connotations of light and dark on its head, turning the lamps into harbingers of violence, fear and nightmarish visions as early as the opening chapter. As Enfield describes his encounter with Hyde to Utterson, he paints a remarkable precise picture of the landscape, drawing particular attention to the lighting:
I was coming home from some place at the end of the world, about three o’clock of a black winter morning, and my way lay through a part of town where there was literally nothing to be seen but lamps. Street after street and all the folks asleep—street after street, all lighted up as if for a procession and all as empty as a church—till at last I got into that state of mind when a man listens and listens and begins to long for the sight of a policeman. All at once, I saw two figures: one a little man who was stumping along eastward at a good walk, and the other a girl of maybe eight or ten who was running as hard as she was able down a cross street. Well, sir, the two ran into one another naturally enough at the corner; and then came the horrible part of the thing; for the man trampled calmly over the child’s body and left her screaming on the ground. It sounds nothing to hear, but it was hellish to see. It wasn’t like a man; it was like some damned Juggernaut.
The lamps provide Enfield with the light by which the horror of Hyde’s violence can be observed; rather than a presentiment of good, light illuminates evil deeds (as it does with the maid’s account of Carew’s murder). The juxtaposition of light as a ‘procession’ with the phrase ‘as empty as a church’ provides an uncomfortable association. The image of an empty church suggests an absence of religious belief, a rejection of God (an appropriate phrase given the novel’s historical context, its links with Darwinism and the falling away of church attendance to which Stevenson possibly alludes); next to this, what are we to make of the procession? This image of the procession quickly cuts (it is a very cinematic image) to the figure of Hyde ‘stumping along’ and then the little girl walking towards him; walking is transformed into a brutal act emphasised in the trampling of the girl. Enfield’s conclusion, ‘it was hellish to see’ finally connects light with the notion of evil, and so the image of a ‘procession’ through this cinematic montage takes on more demonic connotations.
Later on that same evening. Utterson is troubled by a dream which Stevenson describes in great detail, a famous sequence replete with imagery which recalls Henri Fuseli’s Gothic painting ‘The Nightmare’:
Mr. Enfield’s tale went by before his mind in a scroll of lighted pictures. He would be aware of the great field of lamps of a nocturnal city; then of the figure of a man walking swiftly; then of a child running from the doctor’s; and then these met, and that human Juggernaut trod the child down and passed on regardless of her screams. Or else he would see a room in a rich house, where his friend lay asleep, dreaming and smiling at his dreams; and then the door of that room would be opened, the curtains of the bed plucked apart, the sleeper recalled, and lo! there would stand by his side a figure to whom power was given, and even at that dead hour, he must rise and do its bidding. The figure in these two phases haunted the lawyer all night; and if at any time he dozed over, it was but to see it glide more stealthily through sleeping houses, or move the more swiftly and still the more swiftly, even to dizziness, through wider labyrinths of lamplighted city, and at every street corner crush a child and leave her screaming.
The phantasmagorical image of a ’scroll of lighted pictures’ recalls another technological development of the day, the birth of the moving image – a Plato’s cave of painted light in a darkened theatre (but that’s another story). The description of a ‘great field of lamps’ in a ‘nocturnal city’ connects light to the burgeoning metropolis of London, and the natural metaphor, ‘a field of lamps’ reminds us of the source of light itself: it is an elemental force, mysterious and drawn from beneath the earth. The juxtaposition of light (the lamps) and dark (nocturnus, Latin, of the night) reinforces the inextricable links between these two binary oppositions; but also suggests that in Stevenson’s mind at least, they are not so binary after all with the two concepts easily merging into one: a chiaroscuro that signifies the very concerns of the novel itself and the characters therein. The later image of the ‘wider labyrinths of a lamplighted city’ merely reinforces this association. The labyrinth is associated with the Greek legend of the minotaur, the monstrous beast who resides at its heart, and it takes very little work to see that in Utterson’s case it is Hyde who lurks at the centre of this particular example. However, back to Freud, the labyrinth is also associated with several ideas that are helpful to our understanding of Jekyll and Hyde; first, it is a symbol of the unconscious and its complexities, the potentially unknowable secrets at its centre a clear metaphor for the beast. Utterson’s lighted labyrinth speaks of his desire to know Hyde, but his terror of the labyrinth also suggests his own fears of being consumed by the city and by Hyde who is the Other, the unknown mystery.
The ambiguity of the gas-lamp lends itself to the uncertainties that accompany progress, and it is no surprise that, according to Milan, “it became associated with deceptive appearances and the industrialised landscape”. The duality at the heart of the novel is reflected in the ambiguous relationship between light and dark, an ambiguity reinforced by Stevenson’s use of gas-lamps. As Susanne Bach and Folkert Degering observe, “if the brightly illuminated night is something artificial and unnatural, then the vain, self-indulgent, and evil persona of Edward Hyde is artificial and unnatural as well: he is the result of a scientific experiment gone wrong” (2015: 60). For Sarah Milan, gas lighting is a symbol of “the unnatural and deceptive qualities of domestic space or their occupants” (1999: 99), a signifier of the struggles between the powers of light and dark, a conclusion which needs very little explanation given the abiding themes of Stevenson’s tale.
In an age of remarkable innovation – in science, in mobility, in medicine – the advent of light to the city streets becomes another metaphor for the acquisition of knowledge, but with that knowledge comes the conflict between old and new, the dialectic of the cultural shift from the certainties of the past to the uncertainties of the present and the future. Indeed, Professor Ruth Robbins (amongst others) attribute the rise in popularity of ghost stories to the technological and scientific advances made in the nineteenth century: the telegraph as a form of communication, or the new-fangled art of photography as a means of re-presenting the world, are easily transmuted into the disembodied voices of the séance or the ethereality of phantom presences, whilst the carbon monoxide vapours emitted from gas lamps were attributable to the hallucinations experienced by the populace of the great metropolises of the new modern era. The ghost story thus became a vehicle for cultural, religious and emotional uncertainty, a lens through which writers and their audiences could make sense of the turbulent world in which they lived. The re-appearance of the past, the return of the repressed, is a key element of Freud’s uncanny: it is the desire to return to that most safe of homes – the womb – and so, in many ways, the desire for sanctuary, a safe place against the terrors of the modern world, manifests itself in the popularity of the ghost story: for here, one can safely negotiate the labyrinth of our fears, and immerse ourselves in the knowledge that the past is ever-present.
- Bach, S. and Degering, F. (2015) From Shakespearean Nights to Light Pollution (Artificial) Light in Anglophone Literature in Urban Lighting, Light Pollution and Society ed. Meier, J. et al (Routledge, New York)
- Brown, B. “Thing Theory,” Critical Inquiry 28, no. 1 (October 1, 2001): 3.
- Lutz, D. (2015) The Bronte Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects (Norton, New York)
- Milan, S (1999) Refracting the Gaselier: Understanding Victorian Responses to Domestic Gas Lighting in Domestic Space: Reading the Nineteenth Century Interior ed. Bryden, I. and Floyd, J. (Manchester University Press)