An exploration of power in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ and ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

Power is an extremely prevalent theme within the gothic genre, whether it’s to do with sexuality, physical power, social class, gender or power over others. It allows writers the freedom to explore a more erotic sexuality or explicit violence that wouldn’t otherwise be acceptable. Both writers are interested in the importance of testing societal boundaries and what happens to the individuals who use power to attempt to cross these boundaries. Since Carter has a feminist worldview, she creates the theme of power and focuses on the objectification of women.[footnoteRef:1] Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories’ is a collection of fractured fairy tales that criticise and mock the original fairy tale tropes. In the original versions, the women are mostly portrayed as powerless, whereas Carter opposes this. Jeanette Winterson states that “what Angela Carter did with the fairy tales was take the stories that we all know and turn them inside out and make it into something which gave women back the power”[footnoteRef:2], for example, the heroine escaping the Marquis with help from her mother. “-without a moment’s hesitation, she raised my father’s gun, took aim and put a single, irreproachable bullet through my husband’s head”. By taking into consideration that the mother did not hesitate suggests that she shows no remorse towards the Marquis and has the natural strength, both mentally and physically, to carry out this action. Due to the mention of her “father’s gun”, a phallic symbol as well as an example of male dependence, the point is contradicted showing that power originates from a masculine figure. However, backing up Winterson’s statement, this could also be seen as a transfer of power from man to woman. Similarly, it is significant that she claims her husband with the possessive pronoun “my” to suggest she is finally gaining power over him. [1: https://www.litcharts.com/lit/the-bloody-chamber/themes/power-and-objectification] [2: Carter Documentary – Of Wolves And Women Jeanette Winterson 37:40 https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0bf4whd] [3: A.Carter – The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories p.41]

In Stevenson’s ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ power is conveyed through Dr Jekyll’s battle over his evil persona; Mr Hyde. As Jekyll struggles to control himself, his anxiety grows due to his reputation being at stake. Power can also be seen through the character’s social class. Dr Jekyll is described as being a middle-aged, distinguished-looking and respectable man because of the way he behaves, the clothes he wears and his wealth. Even though Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are essentially the same person, Hyde appears to be of the lower class due to Stevenson’s use of typical working class conventions. Hyde’s clothes represent under-development and the idea of half-being.

In Carter’s short story ‘The Snow Child’, the Count demonstrates his power when he creates his paedophilic vision of what a man is stereotypically considered to desire and then proceeds to rape her. He ‘thrust his virile member into the dead girl’. The use of the dynamic verb ‘thrust’ creates violent imagery and displays the sign of dominance and power he holds as a male. During the time of publication, men were seen to have a superior status to women, meaning they had more power over them. The Count’s actions show an exaggerated example of 1970’s patriarchy. The gothic convention of ambiguity is displayed because it is unclear as to which period the story is set, but it could still relate to present-day society. The Count abuses his power for his own benefit rather doing good in the world, ‘illegitimate power and violence is not only put on display but threatens to consume the world of civilised and domestic value’ states Botting; although his power was legally obtained it is undeserving due to his decadent behaviour. Due to the Count’s status, he is seen to be socially superior to the general population. Droit de Seigneur or the ‘lord’s rights’ is the legal right which allowed feudal lords, in this case the Count, to have sex with subordinate women, this being the Snow Child. This suggests that there is no negative repercussions for those of a higher status as the Count does not suffer for his actions as a consequence of his inherent power-attributed to his character via his primogeniture. [4: A.Carter – The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories p.106] [5: McKechnie, Hector (1930). ‘Jus Primae Nostis’. Juridical Review. 42. pp. 303–311]

Much like ‘The Snow Child’, ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ also displays the theme of power through violence. Mr Hyde is excessively violent at unpredictable times, ‘-all of a sudden he broke out of all bounds and clubbed him to the earth’. Stevenson’s use of dynamic verbs conveys the idea of atavism. ‘-all of a sudden’ emphasises the impulsiveness of his immoral actions, almost like it was a natural desire for him to kill. Both the Count and Mr Hyde are likened to predatory animals. The Count is described as a sexual predator and unable to control his actions, whilst Mr Hyde can’t control himself over his violent actions, ‘with ape-like fury, he was trampling his victim’, just like the Count with his sexual desire, he can’t control his impulsive primitive desires. The use of the simile ‘ape-like’ relates to the idea of atavism and de-evolution. Criminologist, Cesare Lombroso tried to distinguish any possible relationship between criminal psychopathology and physical defects. [6: Stevenson’s ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Tales of Terror’ p.21-22] [7: Cesare Lombroso Theory https://www.britannica.com/biography/Cesare-Lombroso]

This strongly influenced Hyde’s character, with his excessive violent behaviour and deformities, clear atavistic traits. Much like Carter, Stevenson uses this burst of lack of self-control and violence to shock the reader. Men stereotypically use violence as a way of displaying their power and authority to women and other men, this relates to the idea of male dominance. In the Victorian era people suspected that Hyde was real, due to the ‘work’ of famous killer ‘Jack the Ripper’, who was reported to be a medical man. Therefore, society feared Stevenson’s novella. An 1888 staged version of ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ coincided so perfectly with the onset of the infamous Jack the Ripper murders in London that the public was convinced that the actor, Richard Mansfield must be the culprit. This was never confirmed but his transformations during the play were so realistic and passionate that many audience members were genuinely horrified by the performance which elucidates the unnatural power Hyde as a character exhibits.

In regards to power, men can be seen to break the boundary of gender and display the idea of androgyny. Masculinity was important to men during the 70’s because they were often criticised for appearing weak, it was perceived as detrimental for a man to convey emotion which is significant to why Carter wrote about emasculated men. Carter had experienced this portrayal from her husband as he was very depressed which resulted in her exasperation. ‘The Erl-King’, allows himself to be stereotypically “feminine”. The narrator inhabits a maternal role, “Sometimes he lays his head on my lap and lets me comb his lovely hair for him.”[footnoteRef:8] The adverb “sometimes” implies that he may not always be comfortable with doing it and that it is rare for him to do, like a lot of men. The Erl King is also seen as powerful, despite being feminine, when the narrator is warned that “The Erl-King will do you grievous harm.” When the narrator finally finds the Erl King, she finds a calm-looking sprite. Unconventionally, the Erl King keeps his home impeccably clean; the narrator describes him as “an excellent housewife.” The femininity that is attached to the noun “housewife” opposes the Erl King’s gender. A housewife is a married woman whose main occupation is caring for her family. A housewife is rarely seen to hold any power because they feel trapped in a never-ending cycle of labouring for their husband, the head of the house. This relates to Carter’s own life at home with her husband, she would do all the house-wife jobs and he negative emotions towards this topic influenced many of her works and can be displayed in her diary entries. [8: A. Carter The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories p.104] [9: Dictionary]

In ‘The Lady of the House of Love’ the Countess and the Englishman are seen to have swapped the roles. The Countess is described with having physical conventions of a typical femme-fatale character, “her beauty is a symptom for her disorder, of her soullessness.”, describing her beauty as a “syptom for her disorder” conveys that her beauty is a negative quality. This idea of the perfect woman relates back to the Snow Child being the “child of his desires”. As a vampire, they have the need to be seen as nothing but beautiful and sexual beings, similar to how men see women in general. The Englishman contains all the attributes of a stereotypical, gothic, female victim. This is shown through the emphasis on the fact that he is a ‘virgin’. The lack of experience is conveyed to be a weakness. The soldier is dependent on his sexuality and sees it as his source of power. The narrator explains that he has “the special quality of virginity, most and least ambiguous of states; ignorance, yet at the same time, power in potentia, and, furthermore, unknowingness, which is not the same as ignorance. He is more than he knows.” His virginity is what makes him so powerful because it is untouched.

This is seen in the ‘Company of Wolves’ where she is caring for the wolf and he is letting her nurture him, taking a maternal role. The exploration of the power relating to gender roles play a significant part in Carter’s stories, but women are insignificant in ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. In Stevenson’s novella he rarely mentions women and when he does they’re weak and only used as a device to portray the evil nature of Mr Hyde. Both Carter and Stevenson use young girls as a plot device to convey their idea of vulnerability and to establish sympathy from their readers. There are arguments as to why Stevenson did this, whether it was because this was how men thought of women in the nineteenth century and that they were seen to be only moral and innocent, or, perhaps women were simply not relevant to the plot as Stevenson wanted to focus on the main theme, which is the duality of man’s good and evil nature. What is significant about this is that during the time ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ was written, 1886, the feminist movement known as the “New Woman” was emerging. This movement defied the values created by a male-dominated society so that women could have their own independence and the ability to engage with the active world.

The first reference to a female character is the ‘trampled girl’. This character is used to reinforce how cruel Mr Hyde is and isn’t of any significance further in the novel, “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.” The adverb “calmly” suggests that Mr Hyde shows no remorse towards the child and continues, whereas any normal person, with a sense of morality, would be quick to apologise and help the distressed child. The girl appears to have not been greatly harmed but she relies on other people for help, “The people who had turned out were the girl’s own family; and pretty soon, the doctor… Well, the child was not much the worse, more frightened, according to the Sawbones”. The girl is powerless and fragile, she is more frightened by what happened than hurt.

The next female character we see is a maid servant, “living alone in a house not far from the river.” It is clear that Stevenson is trying to convey the idea that the maid is vulnerable by mentioning that she’s “living alone”. Her occupation as a “maid servant” lowers her social status, making her role inferior in comparison to the male characters that are introduced. Stevenson then makes the maid appear weak when she faints after witnessing the murder of Sir Danvers Carew, “At the horror of these sights and sounds, the maid fainted.” Instead of seeking for help like a male would do, Stevenson makes the character faint as she is a woman and has a minor role, therefore, her power is ultimately diminished.

Whilst Carter’s female characters appear to be strong and independent, Stevenson portrays the women in his novella to be weak or hysterical, “At the sight of Mr Utterson, the housemaid broke into hysterical whimpering; and the cook, crying out ‘Bless God! It’s Mr Utterson,’ ran forward as if to take him in her arms.” This suggests that the housemaid is very dependent on men and relies on Mr Utterson to “save” her. This suggests that in the Victorian society, women were very male dependent, which is why Stevenson conveyed her that way. There’s also the idea that all the female characters are found in domestic service or tend to the men by serving them in some way. This relates to the patriarchy of the Victorian period. During this era women didn’t have the right to own property. Most women belonged to the domestic sphere. Women were considered physically weaker yet morally superior to men, which meant that they were best suited to the domestic sphere. This emphasises the lack of power Victorian women had, always having to labour for their husbands and home.

This theme of domesticity also occurs in Carter’s works, this is significant because Carter believed inhabitation of any role was accessible for women which is why she writes about ‘masculine’ female characters, showing her feminist point of view. In her short story ‘The Werewolf’ gender is used to portray power as a young girl takes the masculine role of defending herself rather than being defended by a man. The child carries a knife which is usually considered to be a masculine object. After “slashing” off the wolf’s right paw, the child cleans up as if it wasn’t even a challenge, “The child wiped the blade of her knife clean on her apron…” The apron is associated with female domesticity and could be seen as a metaphor for how the child won’t conform to society’s standards. The use of the pronoun “her” when mentioning “her knife” is significant because the knife is actually her father’s knife which suggests a transfer of power from her father to her, just like the wiping of the blood from the masculine knife on to the feminine apron. The blood represents menstruation and the transition from childhood to adulthood. This transition brings power as adults are said to hold more authority over children. This shows that the girl is accepting of her power.

Due to Dr Jekyll suppressing his less socially acceptable desires, it leads him to express his power in an abruptly violent manner. Jekyll admits that he enjoys his power; wicked nature and ‘disgrace’ of sin, but he cannot cope with the idea of it being his natural self which is why he separates it from himself in order to find it justifiable. He manipulates power in the form of scientific knowledge to alter the perception others have of him. These experiments played with God’s creation and would have been seen to be disrespectful. 15 years before ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, Charles Darwin published ‘The Descent of Man’; the idea that humans carry animalistic and primitive traits crept into literature and in the novella, Hyde is described as ‘troglodytic’ or ‘ape-like’ and is driven by primitive desires. During the Victorian Era there was a mistrust of Charles Darwin’s development of evolution theory and society feared this mostly due to religion and how important it was to communities. They believed that God was the only creator and that the teachings of the Bible must be followed, anything that went against or proved the Bible to be wrong scared Victorian society. Stevenson describes Hyde as ‘ape-like’ and ‘troglodytic. This is significant because he’s reflecting the ideologies of Darwin in the novel; that Hyde does have a likeness to an animal. Hyde’s power and physicality is compared to the likes of the epitome of evil, Satan. “I never saw a circle of such hateful faces; and there was the man in the middle, with a kind of black sneering coolness –frightened to, I could see that –but carrying it off, sir, really like Satan.” This comparison to Satan suggests that Hyde really couldn’t get any more sinful. Without religion there wouldn’t be the freedom to commit immoral acts, as Dr Jekyll says, “With every day and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and intellectual, I thus drew steadily to that truth by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two.” Here Dr. Jekyll explains that humans are not truly just good or evil, but truly a mix of both good and evil.[footnoteRef:11] Therefore, the expression of power differs between representations of Hyde and Dr Jekyll. [10: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde York Notes pp. 52-53] [11: https://portfolio.snc.edu/marissa_kleckner/essay-an-analysis-of-religion-and-its-function-in-robert-stevensons-the-strange-case-of-dr-jekyll-and-mr-hyde/]

The Marquis plays God by murdering his ex-wives and mutilating their bodies “On her throat I could see the blue imprint of his strangler’s fingers”. [footnoteRef:12] The use of the possessive pronoun “his” emphasises the guilt the Marquis should feel for his immoral creations. We can see the Marquis mock religion prior to the discovery of the chamber, when the girl sees the pornographic novels. He responds by mocking her inexperience, while undermining religion similarly to Dr Jekyll, “My little nun has found the prayerbooks, has she?” Again, the possessive pronoun “my” reinforces his dominance over his wife. The Marquis gained domineering power via his gender and experience, ‘He was older than I. He was much older than I; there were streaks of pure silver in his dark mane’. Carter uses the gothic trope of an older man and a younger woman, while also focussing on the Marquis’ animalism. The repetition lays emphasis on the Marquis age, therefore, emphasising his experience. The use of the noun “mane” conveys an animalistic appearance, much like Hyde. Possession and power over women is one of the main subjects of Carter’s works. [12: A. Carter The Bloody Chamber pp. 26-28 ]

Many of the female characters in Carter’s short stories transgress boundaries that society have in regards to women. Although, the women in these stories are portrayed as strong, male dependence is still presented through patriarchal ideas. For example, the heroine in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is married and depends on the Marquis’ for his status and wealth. This is archetypal of characterisation within fairy tales, where a ‘damsel in distress’ is “rescued” by marrying a man with higher status and money. The heroine in Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’ describes her marriage negatively, weddings are typically supposed to be a celebration of love and happiness between the two lovers but Carter portrays marriage to be the equivalent of death. “His wedding gift, clasped round my throat. A choker of rubies, two inches wide, like an extraordinarily precious slit throat.” This can be seen as a metaphor of how dangerous power and possession can be, especially relating to marriage and the idea that one small wrong move can lead to a painful breakdown. Carter portrays marriage this way because of her own experience with her first husband, Paul Carter, who was very controlling and manipulative. “…when he put the gold band on my finger, I had, in some way, ceased to be her child in becoming his wife.” Carter compares marriage to possession, suggesting that the heroine becoming the Marquis’ wife results in her leaving her mother. It is a transfer of possession from one controlling figure, her mother, to another, her husband. This relates to Carter’s life with her mother, Sophia Olive and her husband Paul Carter. She was essentially treated like a doll and she eventually rebelled against her mother by losing weight. She did everything she could to oppose her mother’s values and views of an ideal daughter by becoming sacrilegious and using explicit language. What Carter then became is reflected throughout her ‘The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories’ collection. Her husband, Paul, is also often referenced as evil characters in Carter’s stories.

Ultimately, power is portrayed as linked to social status. As power is one of the main themes in gothic literature, it is clear that both texts convey this trope; through sexuality, violence, gender, age, religion and class. Men and women use their sexuality to gain power over others. Men already have power over women due to their gender in a patriarchal society. Men use violence, typically against other men to determine who is most powerful, like predatorial animals. Age is used to determine experience over others, as seen in ‘The Bloody Chamber’. Class is portrayed through metaphors in Carter and Stevenson’s work, for example, The Count being upper class and the Snow Childe being lower, and Dr Jekyll being upper, while Hyde is conveying the working class. Religion is over powered in both stories with very little remorse, Dr Jekyll using science for immorality and Carter displaying immorality.

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