Undermining of Late Enlightenment Progress in “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”
In the 1890s, realization that new knowledge and vast technological innovation created the potential for our own ability to shape the future of humanity, for better or significantly for the worse, prompted the existential crisis of a decade. Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde suggests enlightenment ideals cannot protect against class divisions and conflict, possibility of racial degeneration, and overall mismanagement of knowledge and technology due to human nature itself.
1890s barons amplified class divisions considerably, economically and culturally. “…the fin de siècle has come to be identified as the moment of emergence, in their modern configuration, of the forms of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture.” (Ledger & Luckhurst, 4). London’s topography reinforces this class division, Jekyll’s own home’s position alluding to his duality, but also the duality of London’s class divisions, between slums and mansions. (Luckhurst, xxviii). Just how poor the disparaging lower class is described. “Tramps slouched…children kept shop upon the steps; the schoolboy had tried his knife on the mouldings…for close on a generation.” (Stevenson, 6). Referring specifically to the class of children who play in the streets near prostitutes and already vandalize property, and speaking of this “generation” implies these children will grow up, and their class will wreak havoc on the city and its inhabitants in the coming generation. A clear allusion to reality, riots, gangs, and urban unrest were rampant. “Newly enfranchised working-class men were imbuing the new radical politics like anarchism, and socialism, Marxism.” (Luckhurst, xxix). Famously on Bloody Sunday. Urban destitution was terrifying for the sheltered upper-class “The savage of civilization whom we are raising by the hundred thousand in our slums is quite capable of bathing his hands in blood as any Sioux who ever scalped a foe.” (Luckhurst, xxx). It’s worth mentioning Jack the Ripper’s crimes were believed to be “…perpetrated by some crazed surgeon or aristocrat intent on punishing working class prostitutes.” (Luckhurst, xxx). in a battle against a so viewed “degenerate” class.
Humanities racial degeneration is also seen to be enabled, even catalyzed by the structure of a modern, industrial urban landscape. “The close confines and foul air of our cities are shortening the life of the individual, and raising up a puny and ill-developed race…It is beyond prophesy to guess even what the rising generation will grow into, what this empire will become after they have got charge if it” (Ledger & Luckhurst, 5). Britain’s population living in cities created urban poverty the likes of which the world had never seen. “The language in which Hyde is portrayed in the book – ‘apelike’ and ‘troglodytic’ – owes something to the description of the degenerate urban poor, ‘a stunted, puny race’ in the words of one contemporary.” (Luckhurst, xxx). Hyde also seems to embody the indifferent, apathetic, “blasé” attitude the overstimulating “metropolis” fosters (Simmel, 2). taken to an extreme, degenerating into selfish cruelty as he romps about at all hours (enabled by the city’s electricity and constant operation, a new development) and delights in the ambiguous shameful pleasures that once again, a large city, has to offer.
Technologies of the 1890s fin de siècle seemed to have a duality about them as well. On one hand “Physical and biological sciences on a hundred lines is reducing individual freedom to zero, and weakening the sense of responsibility.” (Luckhurst, xxvii). by “…statistically categorizing, inventing people…apparently chance or irregular events have been brought under the control of natural or social law.” (Hacking, 10). However, now the realization occurred another side of human nature could be ruinous if we weren’t careful was abound due to the “Ambivalence of Modernity” (Ledger & Luckhurst, 3). supported opinions and actions were free to take any direction. Now with “the more the indeterminism, the more the control…Questions of degeneracy, regeneracy, and which direction the future of humanity would take…the growth of a research mentality in European society” (Hacking, 6). could form. Possibly deadly mismanagement of knowledge and technology seemed a given due to human nature, and the potential for us to engineer our own doom seemed nearer than ever before, ironically, in the most “civilized” modern of times and technology. “Parallel to the taming of chance…there arose a self-conscious conception of pure irregularity, of something wilder than the kinds of chance that had been excluded by the Age of Reason. It harked back, in part, to something ancient or vestigial. It also looked into the future, to new, and often darker, visions of the person…” (Hacking, 10).
Per example, in Jekyll and Hyde It’s with new chemical mixtures created using Jekyll’s gifted scientific abilities create that allow him to split and unleash his duality, with horrifying results. In using science “to shine upon the subject from the laboratory table…Nearer to that truth” (52). Rather than gothic castles, it is the backdrop of complex street lamps and towers created using the modern engineering of the London cityscape. Chemicals and papers “neatly set forth on the business table” (41). allude to Enlightenment rationality, implying new technologies of the enlightenment and combined personal freedom will lead us astray, back to the middle ages faster than anything else, as they allow for more rapid degeneration.
Another point, Jekyll has devolved, drifted from solid science into murkier supernatural pursuits, comparable to 1890s pseudosciences like phrenology, and social Darwinism, both incorrectly twist and invent science to justify racist ends. Like Jekyll’s magical potions, such investigative pursuits may be based on false science, but they have very real, awful results, undermining the “good” of enlightenment pursuit of scientific knowledge for the betterment of humanity. Jekyll later discovers his task is impossible “doom and burthen of our life is bound forever on man’s shoulders, and when the attempt is made to cast it off, it but returns to us with more unfamiliar and more awful pressure.” (53). allegory for the enlightenment attempt to rid humanity of its problems through science and rationality, but how the cycle will forever continue as “temptation of a discovery is so singular and profound.” (54). Another Gothic example of this occors in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”, where it’s his pursuit of knowledge out of passion for discovery using new university laboratory technologies with his background of old philosopher’s ideas which create the monster.
More backlash against the enlightenment’s ruthlessly logical antics is shown in Langston, who before his death, remarks “I have had a shock…I sometimes think if we knew all, we should be more glad to get away.” (29). Unaware of Langston’s view of the horrible transformation, Utterson hypotheses, “he is a doctor, he must know his own state and that his days are counted; and the knowledge is more than he can bear.” (29). a worrisome concept that new enlightenment knowledge can prompt an unbearable, existential crisis, knowing too much and being destroyed by it. Through such cold enlightenment rationality, Jekyll had become “Not only hellish but inorganic.” (65). Modern and machine-like, and very much inhuman.
Jekyll and Hyde pushes back against the enlightenment idea new science, rational knowledge and technology, all blooming in the 1890s fin de siècle, will solve all of humanities problems, opening up the horrific idea these innovations may just carry on, even amplify humanities basic instincts. Humanities dual good and evil is, truly, forever inseparable.
Nordau. “Degeneration by Max Simon Nordau.” Lewis Carroll, Project Gutenberg, 9 Febb. 2016, www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/51161.
Lombroso, Cesare, et al. Criminal Man. Duke University Press, 2007.
Simmel, Georg. Metropolis and Mental Life. Syllabus Division, University of Chicago Press, 1961.
Ledger, Sally, and Rodger Luckhurst. Reading the ‘Fin De Siècle’. Oxford University Press, 9 Sept. 2018.
Hacking, Ian. The Taming of Chance. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Hogle, Jerrold E. “The Gothic at our turn of the century: our culture of simulation and the return of the body.” Essays and Studies, 2001, p. 153+. Expanded Academic ASAP, http://ezp2.lib.umn.edu/login?url=https://go.gale.com/ps/i.do?p=EAIM&u=umn_wilson&id=GALE|A90534160&v=2.1&it=r&sid=EAIM&asid=8d5edb93. Accessed 15 Sept. 2018.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Tales. Oxford World Classics, 2006.
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