It is so Real it is Scary
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Stevenson are both examples of nineteenth century works that employ the use of the gothic tropes and motifs in order to elicit a sense of uneasiness and horror in its readers. I will argue that this use of gothic tropes is deliberate and seeks to expose social issues prevalent in the Victorian era, by causing readers to question the legitimacy of what they are viewing and thus question the prevalent ideas associated with such issues, and thus the true horror of these works are the parallels they have to actual society. This will be achieved by establishing the issues each work is using the gothic tropes to challenge, to analyze the use of these gothic tropes, and to apply a historical reading to these tropes to elucidate how these tropes impact the general discussion surrounding their respective social issues.
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While both works feature gothic archetypes, the use of which and their overall context vary widely. Jane Eyre takes a traditional approach to the gothic genre, influenced by The Castle of Ortranto. The main comparison between these two texts can be found in their focus on architectural spaces which in The Castle of Ortranto’s case, is used as the work’s title. The architectural focus in Jane Eyre is that of Thornfield Hall. On page 162 it is introduced after a ride in which the “roads were heavy (and) the night misty,” which immediately separates Thornfield from the rest of the world, an isolated place of many mysteries and potential horrors, which on page 175 are soon revealed. In reference to the attic Jane compares it to “a corridor in some Bluebeard’s castle.” Which is followed by “a curious laugh; distinct formal and mirthless.” Trevor Hope writes in Revisiting the Imperial Archive that “The identification of the textual and architectural thresholds through the marking (and unsettling) of the boundary” is a staple of classic gothic literature and Brontë, in establishing and subverting the expectations of what a large manor house should be like has firmly designated the gothic nature of Thornfield Hall. This then causes readers to question if this Hall is all it appears to be and what the source of such occurrences could be.
The source of these gothic tropes in Thornfield can be attributed to its secret resident, Bertha. Bertha is Rochester’s first wife and a Creole from the West Indies who functions as evidence and a condemnation of Rochester’s troubled past. These two details alone reveal a lot of what the gothic tropes seek to question, them being both colonialism and the role of women in society. One scene of note is that of Bertha destroying Jane’s veil in which she "remove(s) (Jane’s) veil from (her) gaunt head, rend(s) it in two parts, and flinging both on the floor, trample(s) on them." (371) This scene significantly distresses Jane and sets in motion the impediment to the wedding in the traditional marriage plot. But more so than this, the scene draws the reader’s attention to the institution of marriage itself and a women’s place in it. The juxtaposition of the incredibly familiar wedding gown and veil with a hostile and horrific entity creates a disturbing effect in which the two separate ideas are briefly connected. In the greater context of the work this can be read as a rejection of marriage in its unequal state as it were at that stage in the novel, for only when Jane and Rochester are rendered equal does the marriage proceed.
The social norm this gothic representation of marriage challenges is expanded upon by Haiyan Gao in Reflection on Feminism in Jane Eyre. They state that in the Victorian era “For people like her, they have no dignity; the rich can treat them at random and need not bother to give them any esteem. But Jane Eyre never surrenders to those snobbish people who despise the poor and the weak parochially and ruthlessly,” And “In those days of Britain, a female, like the noble Miss Ingram, is expected to seek a decent life through marriage and a wealthy husband. However, undoubtedly, it is based on the status and fortune of her family.” These two quotations provide a greater historical backdrop for the norm of marriage in the Victorian era. Through this reading of the text it can be seen how the original marriage proposed by Rochester is one of the rich man preying upon a poor woman who would most likely continue with the marriage regardless of any occurrence. Bertha, when read in this context, can be seen as a woman who was victim of such a marriage lashing out at the system that created it. The rending of the veil symbolically serving as the destruction of this type of marriage.
Perhaps the best evidence of this idea can be seen as a new equilibrium is established at the end of the work where Jane states “no woman was ever nearer to her mate than (her).” It is this establishment of the new equilibrium and the fact that the gothic does not encroach on this equilibrium that that solidifies the position that to Jane and to women as a rule are better off in a marriage such as this.
On the other hand, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as Ahmet Süner puts it in The Late Victorian Economy of Countenance in Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, “represent(s) a momentous shift in Gothic literature from the exotic to the urban.” In doing so the manifestations of the gothic also change. Rather than appear as external forces such as Bertha in Jane Eyre the gothic elements of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde take on a deeply personal form, that of the titular characters themselves. The initial description of Mr. Hyde on page 37 is of note. “He’s an extraordinary looking man, and yet I really can name nothing out of the way.” By describing Hyde like this Stevenson is able to make Hyde out to be a sort of everyman in that he is both distinct yet universal. In this way the latent desires of Dr. Jekyll can be seen as the latent desires of any upper-class man living in Victorian England.
These latent desires can be understood to be the result of over socialization in the rapidly industrializing world of Victorian England. As Benjamin O’Dell states in Hegemonic Negotiation In the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, “From the beginning Utterson is set forth as a quintessential representation of his class- a man who is public even in his privacy… unlike Jekyll, Utterson can easily negotiate his contemporary landscape without falling victim to the threat of gross improprieties.” Essentially, O’Dell is stating that Utterson represents the ideal enlightened man, someone who is able to think and act logically at all times and is not a slave to his vices. This can be seen on page 61 when Utterson enters Jekyll’s abode with Poole in the words of the cook. “Bless God! It’s Mr. Utterson.” The lower-class servants look to Utterson with reverence as someone who will be able to restore order in their chaotic world.
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This contrasts with the source of the chaos, Dr. Jekyll. Jekyll is a man of similar social standing to Utterson, yet he lacks the resolve of Utterson to stay away from his urges. What begins as a morbid curiosity ends up as a dire situation for Jekyll as he becomes unable to control his transformations any longer, in essence becoming a slave to his vices. In characterizing Jekyll this way, Stevenson, creates a dichotomy between the two sides of the upper class; the idealized upper class that should they function, society would maintain order, and the more realistic upper class, flawed and not taking the full consequences of their actions into consideration when making decisions. Jekyll himself admits as much during his confession on page 85 where he states, “I was once more tempted to trifle with my conscience; and it was as an ordinary secret sinner that I at last fell before the assault of temptation.” Therefore, the gothic transformation of Jekyll into Hyde brought on by temptation is the transformation from the presenting good-natured upper-class man to the internal, malicious and selfish, upper-class man. It is clear then that Utterson represents order and Jekyll represents chaos and like in Jane Eyre the final equilibrium is established once the gothic chaos is vanquished. In this case, only Mr. Utterson is left between the two resulting in an endorsement by Stevenson of Utterson’s way of life over Jekyll’s.
One of the most powerful aspects of each of these works is how vivid and relatable they are allowing readers to place themselves in the positions of their protagonists. In this way, the horror experienced by the protagonists is experienced vicariously by the reader. The anxieties and fears portrayed by the gothic elements in these works are anxieties and fears shared by the majority of their readers. For example, the loss of autonomy after marriage and the loss of control over one’s own life. Indeed, by symbolically representing these fears through the gothic Brontë and Stevenson are able to evoke the same emotions their characters feel in their readers and simultaneously offer solutions to these fears both in their narrative and in the real world.
Both these works function in similar ways in which an equilibrium is established and then upset by gothic interference. In establishing an initial equilibrium the authors are able to present the social norm they will be challenging in a familiar way to their audience. By upsetting this balance in a gothic manner, the authors cause their readers to experience similar fears as their characters do. This in turn, causes readers to be more perceptive to the solutions brought forward by the authors in their arrival at a new equilibrium unimpeded by the gothic. In doing so Brontë and Stevenson are able to offer implicit endorsements and oppositions to the social issues they address by associating them with the orderly nature of the equilibrium and the chaotic nature of the gothic.
- Charlotte Brontë Jane Eyre. Broadview.
- Robert Stevenson Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Broadview
- Süner, Ahmet. "The Late Victorian Economy of Countenance in Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." Papers on Language & Literature: A Quarterly Journal for Scholars and Critics of Language and Literature, vol. 54, no. 3, 2018, pp. 219.
- O'Dell, Benjamin D. "Character Crisis: Hegemonic Negotiations in Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 40, no. 2, 2012, pp. 509-521.
- Gao, Haiyan. "Reflection on Feminism in Jane Eyre." Theory and Practice in Language Studies, vol. 3, no. 6, 2013, pp. 926.
- Hope, Trevor. "Revisiting the Imperial Archive: Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea, and the Decomposition of Englishness." College Literature, vol. 39, no. 1, 2012, pp. 51-73.
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