The Limitations of Language in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, investigates the effectuality of language as a means of rational and logical communication when confronted with situations that represent the intangible and supernatural. Throughout the text, it becomes evident that there is a gradual disappearance of the ability to communicate ideas verbally when characters attempt to explain certain things – particularly, situations involving Mr. Hyde. This erosion of logical communication through language is represented and illustrated by several characters, mainly Mr. Enfield, Dr. Lanyon, and Mr. Utterson. These characters all represent the theme of silence that permeates the novel, and with this silence comes a gradual illustration of the limitations of language and its inability to efficiently rationalize and convey encounters with the supernatural. The first type of silence that is present throughout the novel is associated with refusals of various characters to discuss topics that could potentially harm their reputations as well as the reputations of others. It is possible that in some cases, Stevenson uses this lack of description as a mechanism of ambiguity, so as not to allow the reader to be completely familiar with the histories and backgrounds of his characters (Thomas 249). Additionally, there exists a refusal among characters to discuss various topics that would force them to pursue a situation with the potential to go beyond the limitations of reason, and this seems to stem from a concern for reputation and public virtue. For example, Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Lanyon both leave records of what they have seen and done, but they also insist that the records not be opened until after they have died. This suggests that the truth can be exposed only after the death of the person whose reputation it might ruin. Stevenson may be suggesting that this scorn for the unpleasant shown through the characters’ refusal to discuss certain topics is an outcome of the repressiveness of Victorian society, which prized good taste above all and preferred to subdue or even reject the truth if it had the capacity to upset the traditional paradigm of the era (Thomas 250). A second form of silence in the novel is that of uncontrollable speechlessness. Throughout the book, language – a rational manner of perceiving the world – is expressed as existing in opposition to the fantastical or supernatural. When faced with the irrational and things that are intangible, language does not suffice. In Richard Tithecotte’s book Of Men and Monsters, the author identifies “on the one hand, the cozy world of well-lit interiors, of hearths, of speech, and on the other the cold, dark world of the unspeakable” (Tithecotte 50). According to Tithecotte, Dr. Jekyll’s house, “with the front associated with Jekyll and the back associated with Hyde,” encourages the reader to “interpret these characters … in terms of ‘public side’ of the self and ‘non-social, private’ side” (Tithecotte 50). It can be further deduced that these silences are mirrored and illustrated by various secondary characters in the novel, particularly Mr. Enfield, Dr. Lanyon and Mr. Utterson. In the beginning of the novel, Mr. Enfield attempts to describe Mr. Hyde’s trampling of a young girl to Mr. Utterson. He says the following:He is not easy to describe. There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why. He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point. He’s an extraordinary-looking man, and yet I really can name nothing out of the way. No, sir; I can make no hand of it; I can’t describe him. And it’s not want of memory; for I declare I can see him in this moment. (Stevenson 9)Mr. Enfield’s confused response “finds its counterparts” in the virtually “identical” reports of Mr. Utterson, Poole, and Dr. Lanyon (Arata 41). This lack of articulation establishes a pattern of speechlessness for the remainder of the novel, as not one single person can verbally convey a concrete description of Mr. Hyde. Instead, many people just conclude that he appears ugly and deformed in some indefinable way. As Joyce Carol Oates says in her essay “Jekyll/Hyde,” “Viewed from without Hyde is detestable in the abstract… Another witness testifies to his mysteriously intangible deformity ‘without any nameable malformation’” (Oates 605). These failures to accurately describe Mr. Hyde contribute to the development of an overall feeling that he is a strange and mysterious character, someone whose deformity is ethereal. In fact, it could be said that language itself fails when it comes face to face with Mr. Hyde. As Dr. Jekyll’s supernatural creation, Mr. Hyde does not really belong in the natural world, and correspondingly, he evades the “conceptual faculties” that are possessed by mortal human beings (Oates 604). One particular character that maintains a silence throughout the book is Dr. Hastie Lanyon, whose main significance has been to function as a representative of reason and logic. Dr. Lanyon dismisses Dr. Jekyll’s experiments as “unscientific balderdash” and essentially is the epitome of the rational man of science, distinctly opposed to anything that would cause superstition and fantasy (Stevenson 12). Dr. Lanyon’s deterioration mirrors the gradual erosion of logical forms of communication and explanation in the face of the supernatural in the novel. In the last chapter of the book, the reader is exposed to Dr. Lanyon’s account of what he has seen. However, it is important to note that while the doctor’s account does include many details of what he has seen, there is really a lack of explanation. The reader is left in the darkness of the unknown with regards to how or why the creation of the potion came to be. Dr. Lanyon writes that Dr. Jekyll confessed everything to him after he had completed the transformation. At the crucial point of his narrative, however, “when he is about to reveal the connection between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Lanyon duplicates Dr. Jekyll’s acts of censorship: ’what he told me in the next hour I cannot bring my mind to set on paper’” (Thomas 249-250). As with other silences in the novel, this refrain from speaking the truth comes from Dr. Lanyon’s refusal to confront such a truth that would upset his view of the world. Through his experimentation and creations, Dr. Jekyll has entered into an unstable realm dealing with investigations about the human nature, and Dr. Lanyon cannot conceive of this because he has always adhered strictly to rational, materialist science. When he is forced to confront this realm (upon seeing Mr. Hyde, who represents the manifestation of the supernatural), Dr. Lanyon begins to deteriorate, attempting to reject the undeniable event that has destroyed his worldview. Dr. Lanyon’s written record relates a warning that was technically delivered by Mr. Hyde, who accurately assesses Lanyon as someone who cannot resist his curiosity (Stevenson 50). However, by tempting Dr. Lanyon with the power of knowledge, Mr. Hyde does provide Dr. Lanyon with the chance to resist a desire for answers. The impact of the shock Dr. Lanyon experiences upon seeing Dr. Jekyll’s transformation is such that it causes Dr. Lanyon, a man who has been dedicated to pursuing knowledge, to realize that some knowledge is too powerful and dangerous for natural men: “I sometimes think that if we knew all, we should be more glad to get away” (Stevenson 29). Dr. Lanyon has determined that he would rather suffer in silence than have to face the exposure of such dark truths. He realizes now that some knowledge is not worth having. Like Dr. Lanyon, Mr. Utterson is a man who appreciates and believes in traditional, conservative knowledge. Since he is a lawyer, he is incredibly familiar with the laws that govern the ways in which Victorian society functions. Upon hearing Mr. Enfield’s account of Mr. Hyde trampling the young girl, Mr. Utterson is haunted by a dream in which Hyde “had no face, or one that baffled him and melted before his eyes” (Stevenson 13). He becomes obsessed with a need to see Hyde’s face, and begins spending time near the building Hyde had entered. This growing fascination is described at length:And still the figure had no face by which he might know it; even in his dreams, it had no face, or one that baffled him and melted before his eyes; and thus it was that there sprang up and grew apace in the lawyer’s mind a singularly strong, almost an inordinate, curiosity to behold the features of the real Mr. Hyde. If he could but once set eyes on him, he thought the mystery would lighten and perhaps roll altogether away, as was the habit of mysterious things when well examined. He might see a reason for his friend’s strange preference or bondage (call it what you please) and even for the startling clause of the will. At least it would be a face worth seeing: the face of a man who was without bowels of mercy: a face which had but to show itself to raise up, in the mind of the unimpressionable Enfield, a spirit of enduring hatred. (Stevenson 13)Mr. Utterson’s obsession with seeing Mr. Hyde’s face is most likely a product of his belief system that ultimately assumes truth can be identified by its external appearance. Not only does Mr. Utterson become preoccupied with seeing Mr. Hyde’s face; he also becomes obsessed with finding the words to define Mr. Hyde’s indistinguishable deformity. For Mr. Utterson, the thoroughly social man, “words are surrogates for reality, manipulation of the former representing control over the latter. While the use of language in this way is common enough, Utterson chronically fails to discriminate between the symbol and the reality” (Fraustino 235). For example, in his confusion about the origins or basis of the relationship between the respectable Dr. Jekyll and the mysterious – if not sinister – Mr. Hyde, Mr. Utterson reads: “Henry Jekyll, M.D., D.C.L., L.L.D., F.R.S., etc.” and determines that in these words there is no room for Mr. Hyde; to him, these abbreviations encompass the total reality (Stevenson 11). However, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde clearly implies that words cannot effectively convey reality. Examples of this implication are abundant, but a particular few include Dr. Lanyon’s declaration that he has “brought on” himself “a punishment and a danger” that he “cannot name,” Dr. Jekyll’s statement that his “affairs cannot be mended by talking,” and Mr. Hyde’s saying “never a word” prior to killing Sir Danvers (Stevenson 20, 29). Therefore, it is suggested that the truth about Mr. Hyde’s character and his relationship with Dr. Jekyll are beyond the extent of Mr. Utterson’s language, if not all language. The frustration that ensues (specifically for Mr. Utterson) when faced with this impossibility for the traditional Victorian man to come to terms with life’s illogic is demonstrated with the feeble explanation Mr. Utterson provides Poole about how the man who is writing in Dr. Jekyll’s hand could potentially be both Dr. Jekyll and someone else, someone completely unknown. As Daniel Fraustino says in an essay for the Arizona Quarterly, “the impeccable logic which Utterson uses to explain erroneously the enigma of the familiar hand and strange voice satirizes his methodology and ultimately his basic grasp of reality” (Fraustino 235):These are all very strange circumstances,” said Mr. Utterson, “but I think I begin to see daylight. Your master, Poole, is plainly seized with one of those maladies that both torture and deform the sufferer; hence, for aught I know, the alteration of his voice; hence the mask and the avoidance of his friends; hence his eagerness to find this drug, by means of which the poor soul retains some hope of ultimate recovery – God grant that he be not deceived! There is my explanation; it is sad enough, Poole, ay, and appalling to consider; but it is plain and natural, hangs well together, and delivers us from all exorbitant alarms. (Stevenson 38)Mr. Utterson’s attempt to place experience within the narrow confines of a world artificially ordered by language is what underlies his concern that his explanation be “plain,” “natural,” hang “well together,” and deliver him from “all exorbitant alarms” (Stevenson 38). Perhaps this is again Stevenson making the suggestion to the reader that, “unlike his early ancestors, modern man suffers from an ever-widening split in his consciousness, and we are all Lanyons, Uttersons and Jekylls who have repressed, alienated, or otherwise estranged the Hyde within us – acts which doom us to inhabit the outskirts of reality as well as those of our own personalities” (Fraustino 235). The presence of silence throughout Stevenson’s novel serves as a means to communicate the limitations of language. Mr. Hyde, a fundamentally supernatural creation whose origins belong to Dr. Jekyll, is emblematic of all things intangible and ethereal that cannot effectively be explained through language. Dr. Lanyon, a man of traditional convention, represents those in Victorian society with the desire to pursue knowledge but the refusal to confront situations that will destroy their perception of the world. Mr. Utterson represents much of the same, but additionally illustrates the refusal to recognize the truth, and the pathetic, satirized attempt to reject the supernatural with feeble explanations such as the one he provides Poole regarding Dr. Jekyll’s state. Ultimately, silence in Stevenson’s novel serves to demonstrate to the audience that at the time, there was a lack of exposure to things that would be deemed “supernatural.” When confronted with situations that presented things that were hard to identify or explain, the traditional Victorian response was to reject or deny these things, either through silence or through attempt to use language to figure out a way to use conventional knowledge to explain these situations. Works CitedFraustino, Daniel V. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: Anatomy of Misperception.” Arizona Quarterly 38.3 (1982): 235. Oates, Joyce Carol. “Jekyll/Hyde.” Hudson Review XL. 54 (1988): 603–608. Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2006. Tithecotte, Richard. Of Men and Monsters: Jeffrey Dahmer and the Construction of The Serial Killer. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1997. Thomas, Ronald R. Dreams of Authority: Freud and the Fictions of the Unconscious. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1990.

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