Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: How setting creates atmosphere and expectation.
Mr. Utterson reflected; and then, raising his head, “If you will come with me in my cab,” he said, “I think I can take you to his house.”
It was by this time about nine in the morning, and the first fog of the season. A great chocolate-coloured pall lowered over heaven, but the wind was continually charging and routing these embattled vapours; so that as the cab crawled from street to street, Mr. Utterson beheld a marvellous number of degrees and hues of twilight; for here it would be dark like the back-end of evening; and there would be a glow of a rich, lurid brown, like the light of some strange conflagration; and here, for a moment, the fog would be quite broken up, and a haggard shaft of daylight would glance in between the swirling wreaths. The dismal quarter of Soho seen under these changing glimpses, with its muddy ways, and slatternly passengers, and its lamps, which had never been extinguished or had been kindled afresh to combat this mournful re-invasion of darkness, seemed, in the lawyer’s eyes, like a district of some city in a nightmare. The thoughts of his mind, besides, were of the gloomiest dye; and when he glanced at the companion of his drive, he was conscious of some touch of that terror of the law and the law’s officers, which may at times assail the most honest.
As the cab drew up before the address indicated, the fog lifted a little and showed him a dingy street, a gin palace, a low French eating-house, a shop for the retail of penny numbers and twopenny salads, many ragged children huddled in the doorways, and many women of different nationalities passing out, key in hand, to have a morning glass; and the next moment the fog settled down again upon that part, as brown as umber, and cut him off from his blackguardly surroundings. This was the home of Henry Jekyll’s favourite; of a man who was heir to a quarter of a million sterling.
Read the extract above and consider your expectations as a reader and the overall effect of the passage. Is the atmosphere sombre, eerie, sinister, funereal, unsettling, unnerving, foreboding etc?
Now, underline any individual words or phrases that help to create the atmosphere. Think about their individual effect and the way that they might increase the drama of the passage, through their relation to each other. Think about cumulative effects. Narratives are like pieces of music. They use words to orchestrate an overall mood and impression.
Remember too, that a writer often consolidates or reinforces his meaning, through some sort of repetition of ideas and may vary the techniques deployed, for extra intensity.
So, let’s look at the phrase, ‘the cab crawled from street to street.’ What techniques are used by the writer here. to create what effect? How is the overall impression achieved? Perhaps the easiest way to arrive at an analysis, is to examine the PROCESS through which you gained your impression. So let’s track back through the process, and see how the extract can be read critically.
- The effect of the phrase ‘the cab crawled from street to street.’ is quite sinister and unnerving. It feels creepy as the verb ‘crawled’ reminds the reader of a creature such as an insect or a crab. It even seems as if an ‘r’ has been removed from ‘crab’ to make ‘cab’!
- The use of personification to animate Utterson’s cab is ironic, as both the passengers are ostensibly ‘good characters’ (agents of the law ), who take this journey into Soho. Utterson and the Police officer seem caught up in the sinister web of Hyde’s fallen, evil world. It is as if the cab is becoming contaminated by its journey and this renders the journey metaphysical or spiritual, as much as being any literal journey. The humans inside in the cab are becoming infected and tainted by the journey.
- Even the movement of the cab is slow, ‘crawled’ and this might suggest that the movement of the cab is deliberately reluctant. Ironically then, even Utterson’s cab feels hesitant to visit Hyde’s world. Anxiety is thus created, as we fear they might never be the same again.
- Alliteration also adds to the effect as it reinforces the physical movements of the personified cab. This strange use of animation is grotesque, as the cab is moving towards the danger rather than away, and so the reader is filled with mounting expectations of horror, about what exactly, the agents of law will encounter.
- The repetition of’ street to street’ shows the universality of the nightmarish landscape. There are no points of sanctuary or even light, as the fog makes the protagonists blind and therefore vulnerable to the surroundings which seem evil and predatory. Malignancy dominates the scene.
- I find the phrase, ‘ the cab crawled from street to street.’ has a visceral effect as I read it. I can sense/feel the journey through the clammy fog, as much as read it, and this heightens the power of the description. It is as if the reader is enduring some nightmarish, metaphysical journey into a degraded, immoral world.
- The passage is structured around the cab’s journey into Hyde’s world. ( Hyde’s HIDING place). Hyde’s world is secretive and threatening and later in the passage, when the ‘fog’ briefly lifts, the visual images revealed are as horrible as the obscurity of the fog. Stevenson seems to be suggesting that there is no mercy in Hyde’s world. Asleep or wake, the world is a fallen, hell which is contaminating and finally ruinous.
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