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Was Dr. Jekyll Gay? A Scholar Believes So

Updated on March 14, 2017
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He is a former journalist who has worked on various community and college publications.

From one of many movies based on the story.
From one of many movies based on the story. | Source

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde may well be "very strange". Robert Louis Steven's famous story of split personalities and suppressed aggression is one of his most entertaining tales. However, there may be more than a moral tale of good and evil lurking on the story's surface. Just like the principal character of his story, Steven's may have written a story that revealed a suppressed truth about himself: his sexual orientation. That is, if you believe Elaine Showalter's argument.

There are no shortages of literary critics, scholars, and readers who have taken Robert Louis Steven's moral story and found many hidden meanings in it. Several point to the examples of ethics and suppression found in the story. Also, many literary – and a few social scientists -- gave it an entirely new meaning. Elaine Showalter is one example.

In the sixth chapter of her book, Sexual Anarchy -a collection of literary analysis focusing on the sexual and feminist repression of the closing years of 19th century - the Princeton English professor claims that The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was about the suppression of homosexual tendencies. She goes further to state that Dr. Jekyll was, in her opinion, a symbolic representation of Robert Louis Steven's own double life.

The Duality of Personality

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a ground-breaking story on many levels. As well as being one of the first stories to explore the ethics of science and technology, it also can be considered one of the first psychological novels. At the heart of the story is the duality of personality.

Through the use of a drug, Dr. Jekyll's alter-ego, Mr. Hyde emerges from the depths of his soul. Mr. Hyde as the antithesis of the good doctor is free to explore the depth of human depravity without the restraints of social rules and norms. Dr. Jekyll, a model of Victorian English nobility, did not have this kind of freedom, for he had to play the role of his hierarchical upbringing.

Showalter is correct in suggesting that The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is about the suppression of the subconscious individual. Using case studies from the Victorian era to bolster her argument, Showalter points out that the story depicted an actual case study of "multiple personality."

The Case of Louis V

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The case in question was that of a man named Louis V., a patient in Rochefort Asylum who went through a startling metamorphosis. Having been a "quiet, well- behaved, and obedient" street urchin, he abruptly became "violent, greedy, and quarrelsome," a heavy drinker, a political radical, and an atheist (Showalter, 1990). Accounts of the case study made on Louis V. were published around the time Stevenson was writing his story.

Also, as claimed by Showalter, some of Stevenson's closest colleagues were scientists researching the psychological disorder of split-personality. Through his friends, Stevenson may have been exposed to the study of "male hysteria."

Male Hysteria

The term male hysteria was a topic of considerable scientific interest in 1886.The term refers to men who acted effeminate. In one study that Showalter included in her book, she tells of French researcher Emile Batualt's observation of a hysterical male. Batualt observed hysterical men in the Salpetriere's special ward where male patients were "timid and fearful men, whose gaze were neither lively nor piercing, were rather soft, poetic and languorous. Coquettish and eccentric, they prefer ribbons and scarves to hard manual labor." (Showalter 1990).

Male hysteria, according to Showalter, also equates to something else: Homosexuality. . Homosexuality was a topic of considerable scientific and legal interest in 1886. According to Showalter, during the year Stevenson was publishing his novel, British Parliament passed a bill that outlawed homosexuality. Although homosexuality was viewed negatively by the ruling members of Victorian society, the outlawed topic was discussed in social circles.

Andrew Lang, who said Stevenson "possessed, more than any man I ever met, the powers of making other men fall in love with him."

Showalter included many references about Stevenson's supposed sexual orientation. As she points out, some of his sexual ambiguity is conveyed in the portrait, Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife (1885). She claims that the seemingly innocent portrait captured Stevenson trapped by domesticity and femininity.

Another strand of evidence Showalter uses in her argument is a quote from Stevenson's colleague, Andrew Lang, who said Stevenson "possessed, more than any man I ever met, the powers of making other men fall in love with him." She also points out that critics have noticed the allegories of suppressed homosexual beliefs in the Victorian society. She argues that his novel about the "communities of men" had many critics remarking on the "maleness," of the story.

She bolsters her argument by pointing out certain facts in the book:

  • there are no major female characters; none of the male characters have any relationship with a woman except as a servant;
  • characters such as Utterson and Lanyon seem to enjoy the company of other males;
  • Stevenson's use of description in the narrative was innuendos or allegories of homosexuality.

One claim she presents as proof is the metaphorical phrase “chocolate-brown fog.

From the 1941 version starring Spencer Tracy
From the 1941 version starring Spencer Tracy | Source

Her argument, however, falls short when she tries to point out certain descriptive phrases as innuendos to homosexuality. One claim she presents as proof is the metaphorical phrase “chocolate-brown fog.”

Showalter claims: "the homosexual body is also represented in the narrative in a series of images suggestive of 'anality' and anal intercourse. Hyde travels in the chocolate-brown fog that beats about the back-end of the evening; while the streets he traverses are invariably 'muddy' and 'dark', Jekyll's house, with its two entrances, is the most vivid representation of the male body."

These phrases seem to describe the suggestiveness of homosexuality. However, in context, the references don't seem to take on such of a meaning. In Victorian England, especially in London, homes and industries were powered or warmed by coal. When the residue of burnt coal mixed with fog, the result was an early version of smog.

Smog can easily be described as chocolate-brown in color, especially on a moon-lit night. Also, the reference to the door was only part of the description of a house. Here's a part of that text from the story that Showalter is referring to:

  • "Two doors from one corner, on the left-hand going east, the line was broken by the entry of a court. Just at that point, a certain sinister block of building thrust forward its gable on the street. It was two storeys high; showed no window, nothing but a door on the lower storey and a blind forehead of a discolored wall on the upper; and bore in every feature, the marks of prolonged and sordid negligence. The door, which was equipped with neither bell nor knocker, was blistered and disdained. Tramps slouched into the recess and struck matches on the panels; children kept shops upon the steps; the schoolboy had tried his knife on the moulding; and for close on a generation, no one had appeared to drive away these random visitors or to repair their ravages. (Stevenson, 1886)"

This paragraph from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, is not an indicator of homosexuality. Instead, the description of the door gives an indication of foreshadowing. Later in the story, it is revealed that Dr. Jekyll hid from the world behind this door in order to prevent Mr. Hyde from wreaking havoc on the world outside. The description also helped to create a dark atmosphere for this science fiction/horror story.

Intentional or Not?

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Elaine Showalter's argument is circumstantial and speculative, at best. Stevenson may have deliberately written a cryptic tale of homosexuality or used words innocently to describe a place, event or atmosphere; however, the only one to know for sure is Stevenson, himself.

What is certain is that Showalter has brought up a point about a story that explored suppressed personalities. Her comments - and the other critics and writers she mentioned in her essay - give the story a different slant whether Robert Louis Stevenson intended to or not.

© 2017 Dean Traylor

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