Stevenson the Feminist: Flipped Gender Roles in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

14 May 2016

Stevenson the Feminist: Flipped Gender Roles in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Welcome to the Victorian era: there are horse drawn carriages, exponential growth in industry and science, and, most importantly, men continue to rank as the superior gender simply because of women lacking a certain genital. Being oppressed as ever, women were not only still inferior in more ways than one, but were absent from the pages of literary texts and bookshelves among all classes. Perhaps this is because women had a larger societal role to play besides spending their leisure time writing–in fact, women did not have leisure time even in the upper class. Either way, many of the famous stories to come out of this period did not feature women and were written by men for men. One example would be Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, published in 1886.

The lack of women within this text is evident–the role of women is to simply be a maid of Dr. Jekyll, a prostitute outside on the streets, or the maid that witnesses Mr. Hyde’s murder of Sir Danvers Carew. Other than these few characters, women do not grace the novella with much of a presence. Because of this, the story is commonly read as misogynistic and takes on a feminist lens when discussed. Taking a feministic read of the novella to argue about the lack of women, and therefore what Stevenson was thinking when writing, is not necessarily incorrect. However, in this essay, I aim to discuss that though there is a lack of biological women in the text, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde inhabit the characteristics of females, therefore, rendering any additional female characters as unnecessary.

Firstly, women are not completely void from the text. In a way, in regards to the maid that watches Hyde’s gruesome murder, they do play a small role. Without that maid watching, the hunt for Hyde would not have begun, or would Dr. Jekyll be forced into choosing between his two sides. As Charles Campbell says, women are the “key to a reading of the novel as it concerns the suppression of sexuality” (310). He suggests that: “The men of the novel are the city incorporated as lawyers, doctors, scientists, and sadists; they are associated with fog, lights and interiors. The women are the city as sexuality, innocence, sentiment, and victims; they are associated with street life, the outside of buildings and doors” (316) and this critic is not incorrect, but he misses a bigger point throughout the text. The maid did not necessarily have to be a maid. It really could have been any passerby, male or female, but more likely male since the women were constantly off performing their duties. This shows that women in the text, though seeming to have a role, are still unnecessary.

The Victorian period was the starting point for many new discussions regarding sex, as showcased by Antonio Sanna’s work: “The late nineteenth century saw an explosion of discourses on sex and sexuality” (Sanna 21). Sex became a part of a conversation; it was not totally accepted, but it was a curious subject and earned its place in discussion. Furthermore, “the attacks and campaigns against sexual excesses such as masturbation and coitus interruptus, which had lasted for the whole nineteenth century and were commonplace in medical literature, now focused on homosexuality” (22). Perhaps sex became a familiar subject because homosexuality became a more familiar action, which is why many critics see “The all-male pattern [in Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde]…[suggests] a twist of thought that Jekyll’s secret adventures were homosexual practices so common in London behind the Victorian veil” (Nabokov 187) and these critics are not incorrect. They see Jekyll’s “secret pleasures” as a “strong argument” for the exclusion of women in the text (Linhan). Suppose that Jekyll’s secret pleasures and need for Hyde is because of his undisclosed homosexuality, this is a further point that women are unnecessary. Men are able to find love and release from their needs with other men, therefore taking on a “feminine” role as the second partner in certain erotic escapades.

Continuing with the erotic, as discussed by Parker in How to Interpret Literature chapter on Feminism, the term “the gaze” is used when talking about women’s role in literature and movies. “The masculine subject gazes, and the feminine object is gazed at” (170); the only use of women in a text, and also on screen, is to be looked at, to be gazed at. Their sole purpose is to serve as an idealistic image for the protagonist, generally a man, to physically look at and that is that. This then turns erotic when: “Written literature often lingers over a narrator’s or a focalizer’s erotic gaze at a focalized character and often at a focalized woman” (172). Since the feminine object, a female character, is constantly being looked at and described, the gaze of the narrator can seem erotic and obsessed to some extent. And this is probably why scholar Laura Mulvey claims that “This is what men do: they look, and they look in abusive ways; and this is what women do: they are looked at, and they remain passive” (173). Perhaps this is why there is a large push for female protagonist novels, especially in the young adult genre of fiction to be written, since women generally did not have much a part to play in literary scenes. Stevenson’s novella then could be seen as a fantastic example of not objectifying women to the gaze, seeing as women do not play a large part in this novella. However the gaze is still present, it just is not directed at women.

The reader is constantly drawn to Hyde’s physical appearance. Mr. Enfield attempts to describe Hyde to Mr. Utterson in the first chapter: “There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable…He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity…He’s an extraordinary looking man” (Stevenson 11-12). Immediately the reader, alongside Utterson, contemplates how atrocious this man must be, therefore transforming Hyde into the “looked at” and the reader into the “gazer”. The descriptions continue: “Mr. Hyde was pale and dwarfish, he gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation, he had a displeasing smile, he had borne himself to [Utterson] with a sort of murderous mixture of timidity and boldness, and he spoke with a husky, whispering and somewhat broken voice” (17). I understand men to lack such eloquent vocabulary especially when describing another man, at least today, but the speaker spends ample time lingering and reporting on what Hyde looks like more than once. The speaker goes into such detail, narrowing down to the way he talks and smiles, not just his physical stature–crossing the line to the erotic and forcing the reader to tag along. This further exemplifies Hyde as the feminine object, and the speaker–and therefore the reader too–as the looker, willingly crossing the line into eroticizing Hyde.

Though the descriptions of Hyde are not as pleasing as a woman would be described, when contrasted with Dr. Jekyll, the gaze turns even more erotic. Jekyll is described as “handsome” whereas Hyde is distasteful (20). The speaker enjoys focusing on the hands of both men, showcasing Jekyll’s transformation into Hyde through his hands. Jekyll recounts a morning when we woke up to realize he was actually Hyde:

My eye fell upon my hand. Now the hand of Henry Jekyll (as you have often remarked) was professional in shape and size: it was large, firm, white and comely. But the hand which I now saw, clearly enough, in the yellow light of a mid-London morning, lying half shut on the bedclothes, was lean, corded, knuckly, of a dusky pallor and thickly shaded with a swart growth of hair. It was the hand of Edward Hyde. (54)

The reader is led through this long-winded description of the difference in hands; Jekyll’s hand being attractive, masculine, whereas Hyde’s hand is baser and off-colored. Once again, even though Hyde is not represented as attractive and feminine per se, the notion of spending time to describe and stare at the men’s features connotes the gaze as previously mentioned. Forcing the reader through this descriptive session, submits him to perform the gaze as well as sealing the image of the men’s physical features for the reader to revert back to when thinking about the two characters later. Furthermore, by setting up Jekyll and Hyde to be described so specifically and so often, renders the description of women useless, since the gaze is forced in a different direction, this time towards men instead of women.

More so, the few female characters are the ones performing the gazing and looking, as exampled by the maidservant who witnesses the gruesome murder of Sir Danvers Carew: “It seems she was romantically given, for she sat down upon her box, which stood immediately under the window, and fell into a dream of musing” (21). The maidservant happened to sit down next to her window and watched as an older man, Carew, approach Hyde to inquire about something, but instead of answering, Hyde simply beats Carew to death with his cane before running away–all witnessed by the maid. While she watched Carew down on the ground, she contemplates his appearance: “the girl was pleased to watch [his face], it seemed to breathe such an innocent and old-world kindness of disposition, yet with something high too, as of a well-founded self-content” (21). This is an obvious example of a woman taking on the role of the gazer, and the object of the gaze is a well-off gentleman. This maid servant’s only scene in the novella is this one, where she slightly objectifies Carew and serves as witness to Hyde’s murder. After this scene, she is never brought up or mentioned again. She lacks any purpose outside of this one task, which is sure to anger some female readers, forcing them to take a feminist approach when analyzing this text.

When using a feminist lens to interpret literature, the scholar must ask what type of agency do the women in the story get? In the case of this novella, the women, much like all women in the Victorian period, lack agency completely. Not only is the reader introduced to the women who are of the lower class, maids or prostitutes, therefore suggesting that they have no outside agency other than the orders they get from their masters or what they must do to obtain money, but the reader comes to the realization that the women lack agency because the men of the text have taken over their agency. Jekyll’s main servant, Mr. Poole, takes charge of delegating the housekeeping and performing any acts Jekyll insists. Not only this, but Poole is the one who confronts Utterson about Jekyll’s state of mind, proving the man has worrisome tendencies like a woman might: “Mr. Utterson was sitting by his fireside one evening after dinner, when he was surprised to receive a visit from Poole. ‘Bless me, Poole, what brings you here?’ he cried; and then taking a second look at him, ‘What ails you?’ he added, ‘is the doctor ill?’ ‘Mr. Utterson,’ said the man, ‘there is something wrong.’” (32). Poole, though being the head of Jekyll’s servants, goes out of his way to contact Utterson out of fear for his master, which even as Utterson believes to be quite out of the ordinary. Poole treats the ever-changing Jekyll delicately, feminizing a man with multiple accolades. The men perform tasks commonly suited towards women: Poole rushes over Utterson’s home instead of sending a female servant over, therefore giving her some agency; Utterson and Poole are the only who tend to Jekyll/Hyde, never letting any of the female staff near him.

Continuing with women’s lack of agency, Jekyll himself embodies the characteristics of a female by, in a way, giving birth to Hyde. By finding a way around traditional birth, Dr. Jekyll proves that women are unnecessary to the final extent–now men can create a different life without the use of a woman. Obviously, Jekyll does not physically go through pregnancy, but he does bring life to a different form from his own body, much like how a woman gives life to something created by her body. In fact, the first transformation into Hyde resembles that of labor: “The most racking pangs succeeded: a grinding in the bones, deadly nausea, and a horror of the spirit that cannot be exceeded at the hour of birth or death” (50). Though I have never given birth, from other descriptions and images, the process seems horribly painful and not too dissimilar to Jekyll’s transformation. Additionally, in a way, when a person has a child, they are no longer a singular person but instead two: constantly watching out for another human being, feeding, caring, and loving a small person. Jekyll has created, to some extent, another person to now watch out for and care for, and when he realizes that Hyde became too much for him to handle, and he tries to subdue Hyde’s power, Hyde only forces himself farther into Jekyll’s life.

A man has taken over not only the basic tasks like running errands and caring for a household, but now reproduction as well, showcasing that women are completely unnecessary. Many “[Suspect] that Hyde is Jekyll’s illegitimate son” (Nabokov 187), but he is much more than that. Jekyll disavows what he has done by taking on the role of a father figure of Mr. Hyde: “[I] had more than a father’s interest; Hyde had more than a son’s indifference” (Stevenson 55). Hyde certainly is a son, a teenager even, but in reality, Jekyll has taken on the motherly role by creating and caring for this extra being. Mothers are the caregivers of their children, rearing them while the father attends to the other more masculine tasks, and in some scenes, Jekyll deals with an unruly teenager and has to raise him a certain way–therefore taking on both roles of the mother and father. Even further, “Hyde was ‘knit’ to him, he writes ‘closer than a wife,’” (Linehan 204). Jekyll does not want to admit that his creation forces him to a maternal role, however, the evidence is apparent–a mother to child bond is certainly closer than that of a wife and husband, nothing can oppose the link between the mother and her newborn baby. Therefore, nothing can oppose the bond between Jekyll and his Hyde.

The lack of biological women in the text is apparent, however Stevenson makes up for that lack by creating the men to take on women’s roles. The main question, however, remains: why does Stevenson create his male characters to perform feminine duties? During this time in Great Britain, women’s suffrage movements were taking on the streets and government. There were seventeen different societies created, all devoted to women’s suffrage, in the span of a few years that then created the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (Myers). This article featured on UK’s International magazine notes that: “Britain did not leap from no voting rights at all to full suffrage, but that there were many bills taken to parliament and many small gains ahead of the 1918 declaration of suffrage for women, and then the declaration of full suffrage for women in 1928” (Myers). Some of these smaller bills included rights to hold property, agricultural rights, and more. Women rose more and more out of the dirt that their male oppressors shoveled over them, and perhaps this novella is a conversation at that. The women advocated for more rights, as they should be, but throughout this time, some men were left behind. Most men were likely to disagree with their wives and sisters, people they have had innumerable control over for the better part of their lives, suddenly rising to challenge their government; and these men were left to tend to things some of those fighting women may have left behind. In a way, gender roles flipped with women taking on government and men left to take care of the house. Perhaps this is the conversation Stevenson implements in his novella–the gender rolls overturned forcing the men to take on the feminine roles.

Stevenson has been called many things–misogynistic comes to mind–but what about feminist? I am not suggesting that by showcasing women as lacking is in any way feminist, but perhaps this lack shows that women are off fighting the battle for equal rights. They aren’t on the streets toiling around, performing meaningless tasks, but instead, they are at parliament arguing for their societal freedom. This, then, forces the men to take on those female roles because their wives, sisters, suitors are battling for their rights, which leaves the men to take care of the children, the home, and ultimately to their own devices. Therefore, instead of looking at Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Stevenson as anti-women, one should read the novella through a lense of women’s empowerment.

The claim that women are unnecessary may not seem that empowering for women, but in this tale perhaps it can be seen as such. Instead of viewing women as a threat against the male dominance as they attempt to counteract the ardent dominance, which would have been considered the reason for the lack, Stevenson renders women as unnecessary. Women are unneeded in this text because the men have taken over the mundane and everyday tasks that a woman would normally be forced to perform. By depicting them as nonessential, Stevenson showcases that women do not need to be the only humans undergoing the stressful tasks of the everyday world–like housekeeping, running errands, and birthing children. Women should welcome this notion of being unnecessary because for once they will have a break from stereotypical womanhood. Men are obliged to finally cover their wive’s tasks, no longer portraying women completely and utterly necessary in order for life to continue.

Stevenson, whether conscious or unconscious, has created immense dialogue for women for centuries to come. Most of this conversation will revolve around the lack of women in his most known text, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but as I have attempted to point out in this essay that there is a concrete reason for the absence–the women are off, battling the British government and the men are finding ways to cope with their loss, learning to take on the mundane and feminine tasks that they never would have thought to cover, but end up enjoying those duties. Poole takes pleasure in running errands for Jekyll and Jekyll takes pleasure from “birthing” Hyde and creating his dual-personalities. In the end, men actually enjoy, to some extent, performing feminine tasks; this shows women as unnecessary, not because of misogynistic tendencies, but instead puts women in a place of equality.



Works Cited

Campbell, Charles. “Women And Sadism In Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde: ‘City In A Nightmare’.” English Literature In Transition 1880-1920 3 (2014): 309. Literature Resource Center. Web. 5 May 2016.

Linehan, Katherine B. “Closer than a Wife’: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll’s Significant Other.” Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism 292 (2014): n. pag. Gale. Web. 5 May 2016.

Linehan, Katherine B. “Sex, Secrecy, and Self-Alienation in Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Contexts, Performance Adaptations, Criticism. Ed. Katherine Linehan. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003. 204-13. Print.

Myers, Rebecca. “General History of Women’s Suffrage in Britain.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 27 May 2013. Web. 10 May 2016.

Nabokov, Vladimir. “A Phenomenon of Style.” Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Contexts, Performance Adaptations, Criticism. Ed. Katherine Linehan. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003.184-88. Print.

Parker, Robert Dale. “Feminism.” How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2015. 148-84. Print.

Sanna, Antonio. “Silent Homosexuality in Oscar Wilde’s Teleny and The Picture of Dorian Gray and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.” Law and Literature 24.1, Silence (2012): 21-39. JSTOR. Web. 05 May 2016.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Contexts, Performance Adaptations, Criticism. Ed. Katherine Linehan. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003. 7-62. Print.

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