“There are some things that are best kept private.”
To what extent does the opening chapter illustrate this view?
The novella, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde” is one of the most well know in the English language. Throughout the novella, Stevenson refers to privacy, but often indirectly. This idea of privacy fits perfectly with the Victorian society in which the novella is set. Victorians valued their reputation highly and so in order to sustain their level of reputation they often kept their darker side covered up to the rest of the public. There are several reasons that the Victorian society were able to create this privacy. Firstly, Stevenson describes Soho as a place build up with narrow, dark streets which were covered in a heavy fog. This set up made concealing actions easier.
The reader must also understand that the media in Victorian times was nothing like it is today, people usually discovered news from word of mouth rather than from the media which resulted in news becoming old before it had time to spread far. It is also important to realise that there were two Edinburghs in the time that Robert Louis Stevenson was brought up, one a very respectable and religious town and the other was known for being quite the opposite. Having two very different areas to the same city could have influenced Stevenson to include this idea into Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
The opening chapter is entitled, “The Story of the Door” which could possibly suggest to the reader that the chapter is about privacy. Stevenson includes the idea of doors throughout the opening chapter. “Not crossed the doors of one for twenty years”, “Two doors from one corner” and “Nothing but a door” are all examples of this repetition. The repetition of the word “door” could be included because doors create a barrier or boundary between two places, this physical barrier can be used to hide items or actions from other people seeing, this supports the argument that the chapter could be about privacy. The use of a door creates a sense of mystery as the reader begins to read the first chapter.
Throughout the novella, Stevenson writes a lot about how every person has a devil within them no matter how angelic they appear to be on the outside. He was apparently “fascinated” with the duality of human nature. This idea could have been influenced from a story that he would have been familiar with when he was young, the story of Deacon Brodie. Deacon Brodie was a respected cabinet maker during the day, but a murderer at night. As this character has a very similar structure to Mr Hyde it is easy to make a link between the two.
There are some differences however, as Stevenson seems to have taken the idea of Deacon Brodie and developed a character who can be much darker and yet somehow become more respectable. When this book was published in 1885, the reaction from the public was that they thought it was shocking because at the time, the idea that there was evil in everybody was a radical one. Almost everyone was deeply religious and therefore believed in the Devil, which for most people gave Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde a bone-chilling truth.
The opening chapter is set during one of the walks that Mr Enfield shares with his cousin, Mr Utterson. During their walk, they pass a plain door with no features that would make it more noticeable to the passing public than any other door. This reminds Mr Enfield of a time during the darkness of an early morning when he witnessed a small deformed and “displeasing” young man, Mr Hyde, bump into a girl as they met at a corner of two streets and how the man then “calmly trampled” over the defenceless child. Mr Enfield then goes onto say how the dwarfish man opened the mysterious door using a key and returned holding a cheque written to the parents of the innocent girl as compensation for his unnecessary actions. Mr Enfield says how the cheque was, “signed with a name that I can’t mention”. That name was Mr Jekyll.
The fact that the cheque from the hands of the criminal Mr Hyde was signed by the respectable Mr Jekyll should have raised many questions about how Mr Hyde acquired the cheque, but as usual for Victorian society, non were asked. The only matter that reached their convocation was whether or not the cheque was genuine, which it was. The fact that both the family of the girl and Mr Hyde decided it would be better to settle the incident with a personal cheque supports the argument that people in Victorian times valued their privacy and kept many events hidden from the public and the media.
Both parties would rather have kept the incident from the public eye, as Victorians hated the idea of scandal. Once Mr Enfield has told Mr Utterson his account of the story, Mr Utterson said, “Let us make a bargain never to refer to this again.” which is Mr Utterson saying that himself and Mr Enfield will never speak of this incident again. The closing off of an event like this also suggests the idea of privacy, even though the two are the greatest of friends, they still make it clear that it mustn’t be spoken of again because of how bad this could make all the people involved look.
Stevenson portrays Mr Utterson as a quite mysterious man who represents the average Victorian man quite well, this could be a reason that Stevenson has included Mr Utterson’s description in the opening paragraph of the novella. Stevenson describes Mr Utterson as a man that was, “never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse” this tells the reader that Mr Utterson was quite a serious man who would often get embarrassed during spoken communication and sometimes can appear to lack affection. Mr Utterson is also described to be, “austere with himself; drank gin when he was alone.”
This tells us about a side of him that he keeps away from the eyes of the people around him in him life. This shows the idea of privacy within his life, as drinking alone was considered to be a little uncouth, drinking was supposed to be enjoyed with friends as part of a social event. Stevenson does add however, “At friendly meetings, and when the wine was to his taste, something eminently human beaconed from his eye; something indeed which never found its way into his talk.” This suggests to the the reader that Mr Utterson may appear more caring and passionate with his facial expressions when he is with his friends. It does say however that he never changes the way he speaks with people. It could suggest that Mr Utterson feels more relaxed with himself, but he is afraid to show it as he has to maintain his respectable reputation.
During the first chapter, Mr Utterson also says, “I let my brother go to the Devil in his own way.” This could suggest that Mr Utterson does not want to interfere with the direction people are going with their lives, even if they are doing wrong. This again includes the idea of privacy as Mr Utterson is saying he does not get involved with other people’s business and respects their privacy. This respect that Mr Utterson has gained for other people’s privacy could lead back to the fact that he is a lawyer, as lawyers have a job to keep what ever their client tells them confidential.
Mr Enfield follows the same idea by later saying, “the more it looks like Queer Street, the less I ask.” This is a very common rule to have for Victorians, if it seems like something is not as it should be, do not get involved. I think that people thought this way because if they did get involved with an incident that is not allowed, and the story was leaked, their reputation would be at stake for having anything to do with the matter.
Mr Enfield is the younger of the two cousins and described as a much more gregarious and sociable character. Mr Enfield may be less austere, but he still remained a respected gentleman and wouldn’t want scandal, like most Victorian men.
Stevenson successfully gets across the message to the reader that privacy was highly thought of in Victorian society. He also gives the reader an insight into the morals and lifestyles of Victorians. This is a very powerful novella as it portrays a clear message in a very short book.