Here’s my analysis of the murder of Sir Carew Danvers in Robert Louis Stevensons’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde– much debated ( and contested) with my GCSE English students!
Nearly a year later, in the month of October, 18—, London was startled by a crime of singular ferocity and rendered all the more notable by the high position of the victim. The details were few and startling. A maid servant living alone in a house not far from the river, had gone up-stairs to bed about eleven. Although a fog rolled over the city in the small hours, the early part of the night was cloudless, and the lane, which the maid’s window overlooked, was brilliantly lit by the full moon. It seems she was romantically given, for she sat down upon her box, which stood immediately under the window, and fell into a dream of musing. Never (she used to say, with streaming tears, when she narrated that experience), never had she felt more at peace with all men or thought more kindly of the world. And as she so sat she became aware of an aged and beautiful gentleman with white hair, drawing near along the lane; and advancing to meet him, another and very small gentleman, to whom at first she paid less attention. When they had come within speech (which was just under the maid’s eyes) the older man bowed and accosted the other with a very pretty manner of politeness. It did not seem as if the subject of his address were of great importance; indeed, from his pointing, it sometimes appeared as if he were only inquiring his way; but the moon shone on his face as he spoke, and the girl was pleased to watch it, it seemed to breathe such an innocent and old-world kindness of disposition, yet with something high too, as of a well-founded self-content. Presently her eye wandered to the other, and she was surprised to recognise in him a certain Mr. Hyde, who had once visited her master and for whom she had conceived a dislike. He had in his hand a heavy cane, with which he was trifling; but he answered never a word, and seemed to listen with an ill-contained impatience. And then all of a sudden he broke out in a great flame of anger, stamping with his foot, brandishing the cane, and carrying on (as the maid described it) like a madman. The old gentleman took a step back, with the air of one very much surprised and a trifle hurt; and at that Mr. Hyde broke out of all bounds and clubbed him to the earth. And next moment, with ape-like fury, he was trampling his victim under foot and hailing down a storm of blows, under which the bones were audibly shattered and the body jumped upon the roadway. At the horror of these sights and sounds, the maid fainted.
This chapter reveals Hyde as a murderer, through the eyewitness account of an innocent maidservant who ‘saw’ the whole incident. Her innocence renders her (apparently) reliable and sets up a contrast with the corruption of ‘evil’ Hyde. The account is structured to make the incident appear to unfold as it happened and this gives the witnesses account, drama, authenticity and horror. So let’s be clear about the implications of the crime. Why is London ‘startled’ by the crime? ( Notice the theatricality of London’s personification, as if the whole city of London is some outraged moral guardian).
The murder of Sir Carew Danvers makes public the violent behaviour of Hyde and involves the police for the first time. This is important as the murder sweeps aside the privacy and secrecy maintained by Dr Jekyll’s (protective) friends and now renders Hyde a criminal fugitive. Interestingly however, despite London being ‘startled’ by the crime, the reader might notice that the pursuit of Hyde is still restricted to a policeman and Mr Utterson, and thus seems far less dedicated in this sense, then the nightmarish mob who pursue Bill Sykes after the murder of his lover Nancy, in Dickens’ Oliver Twist. (1837-39).
Perhaps the privacy surrounding Dr Jekyll’s uneasy alliance with Hyde still contains the outcry at Danvers’ death. Maybe there is something else involved in the death that makes the hunting of Hyde far more contained than the death of Sikes in Dickens’ novel. And remember that in Dickens’ novel, Sikes can be hunted to extinction, because he is a murderous thug- certainly no gentleman like Hyde/ Jekyll. Certainly, Dickens’ response to Nancy’s death seems more egalitarian than Stevenson’s, which seems covertly protective despite the apparent horror.
I find the extract fascinating because the narrative point of view and structure, conspire to create a most unreliable version of events, despite the surface account being authenticated by the presence of an innocent witness, the respectable ‘maidservant’ in her garret home.
So let’s explore this extract and see why the apparently ‘truthful’ version of events might be rather questionable, despite the evident sincerity of the fainting maid.
Nearly a year later, in the month of October, 18—, London was startled by a crime of singular ferocity and rendered all the more notable by the high position of the victim.
The language of moral outrage, jeopardy and class, follows the realist convention of the time frame. The ‘gap’ in the time since the first three chapters, is easy to overlook in its implications. The narrative affects the style of reportage, and gives Hyde’s crime the distinction of being exceptional, specifically, of ‘singular ferocity’ ironically anticipating the activities of Jack The Ripper. (1888) In fact, the stage version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde(three months before the first Ripper murders) was even blamed as a possible inspiration for the serial killer, with its portrayal of contrasting, outward, gentlemanly respectability with inner criminality and evil.
But if we consider the time lapse, between Hyde, trampling on a child and then murdering Danvers, then we might wonder what such a silence might imply in terms of Hyde’s self-control and morality? I wonder if we overlook Hyde’s year’s silence too because we are drawn to read quickly by our interest in the graphic details of Carew’s murder?( Even stranger if we consider why the murder is bloodless despite the violence). Nevertheless, if we stop for a moment to reflect on the time lapse, then it might be interesting to evaluate what such an apparent lapse might signify.
So here are my thoughts: Hyde is fond of transgression. He feeds Jekyll’s ‘wild’ secret nature. Hyde loves adventures and thrives on his nighttime escapades.He believes he can buy his way out of trouble. ‘Name your price.’ He even has an apartment in the heart of Soho, so he can live at ‘home’ with transgression. Are we to believe that for nearly a year Hyde’s criminality has been held in check? And that the act of murder can be explained by his pent-up nature, exploding into murder, after the self-torture of a year’s self-control? Repression leading to sin, because of the level of self-denial? Surely this appears unlikely, even if we assume Jekyll has exercised a degree of control over the indulgences of his ‘other’ side? What seems likely is that his misbehaviours might have been confined to those parts of London where criminal acts were commonplace and where his victims would not be of the same class as Carew Danvers.
Of course, Jekyll may have tutored his ‘Hyde’ side in the art of discretion, just as in my previous blog I talked about Jekyll’s ‘gentlemanly’ intervention with the bribe after the child trampling incident. Hyde’s attack on the child provides the first glimpse we have of his effect on his fellow Londoners, but the outcry surrounding remains local and only shocking because of the interventions of the ‘gentlemen’, Enfield and the ‘Sawbones’, who coincidentally, were witnesses to Hyde’s crime. If they had not intervened, would anyone have managed to punish Hyde at all? Remember the child is hardly under the close guardianship of caring parents because the child out wandering in the middle of the night anyway. Perhaps the gentlemen are in reality policing themselves, as a form of protection and containment? (Enfield is returning, late at night, from the euphemistic ‘end of the world‘! )
So, I would imagine that Hyde has NOT been quiet and well behaved in the missing year. My contention would be that Hyde with the direction of his ‘Jekyll’ side, Hyde has just been careful, and indulged his excesses in areas of London where prosecution and detection would be less likely. This careful behaviour suggests the mentoring ascendancy of the Jekyll side to Hyde, yet surely also shows connivance and premeditation too? Remember the mention of Dr Jekyll’s slyness in Chapter Three.The sly aspect of Jekyll surely shows that even when Jekyll is identified as Jekyll, his hiding Hyde is very much operating behind the ‘scenes’ so to speak. This makes me consider the whole problem of visibliity in novel and its relationship to understanding. Do we see what we expect to see? And things or people might travel undetected, when they are out of their familiar context? Let’s see!
And so to the maid servant’s account. Could there ever be a more innocent, sentimental and wide-eyed account of murder than hers? The account seems initially drenched in the tone and lexis of fairytale benevolence. Where we wonder is the handsome Prince?
It seems she was romantically given, for she sat down upon her box… and fell into a dream of musing. .. never had she felt more at peace … she became aware of an aged and beautiful gentleman with white hair,…and very small gentleman, to whom at first she paid less attention…the older man bowed and accosted the other with a very pretty manner of politeness. ..
Evidently, the maid is a state of romantic dreaminess, suffusing everything she sees with a special lens. If she is in love, this is courtly love, untainted by sexuality. The ‘peace’ of the maid establishes her purity and goodness. She is contemplative. She bestows on Carew Danvers the noble respectability that any gentleman of the realm would be proud9yet deserving) to receive. ‘Aged and beautiful with white hair.’ There is nothing sullied or primitive about this peer of the realm. The maid further reinforces the peer’s goodness with a flattering phrase about his manners towards the ‘small gentleman’ which demonstrate, ‘A very pretty manner of politeness.’all is beautifully ideal and good. But do you detect anything amiss in this scene? Anything perhaps incongruent with the message of perfection that the maid is surely striving to communicate?
Think about the idealism of the account, the fairytale aspect and then the horror when the sentimental viewpoint turns to graphic slaughter. Is the physicality of the scene too much for the maid? Is the sentimental tableau, suddenly animated by forces and physical desires beyond her thresholds of understanding, so she has to faint to regain her innocence?
Look at the role of the ‘cane’ in the scene. How much energy does Hyde invest in his powerful instrument?! Surely Stevenson is endowing Hyde with a highly potent, phallic weapon? ‘‘ Mr Hyde broke out of all bounds and clubbed him to the earth.” Perhaps the scene is truly a retaliation at an unwanted pick up attempted by Danvers on the (oxymoronic-taboo-enticing) ruffian ‘small gentleman‘ Mr Hyde? Do remember the connotations of the verb ‘accost’ – might suggest a form of sexual advance by Danvers, then Hyde becomes agitated, using the ‘heavy cane‘ ironically gifted to Jekyll by none other than a certain Mr Utterson! The violation of Danvers is made clear, what is not clear( because of the narrative viewpoint of the maid) is the motivation of Hyde and the reason that Stevenson makes so much of the club/cane, to the point when it seems an agent of rape as much as murder. (Again, interesting to compare to Sikes in Oliver Twist). Obviously, Danvers’ behaviour towards Hyde, is completely undeserving of his callous slaughter. My point is that the scene is witnessed and constructed by a narrator ill equiipped to read it at all. And that is precisely Stevenson’s ‘trick’!
Look too, at the alliterative combination of ‘pretty’ and ‘politeness‘. Does this seem altogether feminine in its aspect, even a projection of the maid’s own behaviour, onto the night strolling, innocent figure of Carew Danvers? Or is the feminisation of the maid’s construction of Danvers as a courtly, if aged(sexually safe) Knight’s behaviour, a sly hint at his flamboyance perhaps, a camp manner that like Lanyon’s ‘theatrical’ behaviour, might hint at ‘gentlemen’ whose preferences are most likely ‘other’ than the conventional heterosexual respectability of the Victorian ‘gentlemen’? Hyde in his roughness and energy, might easily pass for a rent boy on the prowl?
Thus, the scene invites us to read otherwise, to defy the surface sweetness of the maid’s version of Danvers and to read an altogether different scene, where a strong possibility of sexual indiscretion seems altogether likely and possible.
The Woman in Black
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