The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name: Implicit Homosexuality in Robert Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

The novelist, poet, and playwright, Oscar Wilde, was a contemporary of Stevenson, and was tried and imprisoned under the Labouchere Ammendment.

The novelist, poet, and playwright, Oscar Wilde, was a contemporary of Stevenson, and was tried and imprisoned under the Labouchere Ammendment.

The Victorian Period in England was marked chiefly by silence. Spending a day in the foggy streets of London, a modern reader might think that no vice existed in the period, no animal impulses or sexual perversions, nothing that could mar the veneer of propriety that governed the day to day activities of respectable British citizens. Not because such vices did not exist, but because society refused to acknowledge them. It was almost as though to speak of them was to tarnish your own tightly-held reputation. Or perhaps the silence persisted in the childish notion that if one doesn’t speak of such things, such things don’t exist. The obvious example, which was perhaps most on the mind of England’s citizens, was homosexuality. The Dublin Castle Scandal was circulating Europe and in 1885, a year before the publication of Dr. Jekyll, parliament enacted the Labouchere Amendment, which allowed for the prosecution of “gross indecency” between men. Previously, to be prosecuted, one had to be caught in the act of anal sex (for which the punishment was death). The vague wording of the Labouchere Amendment allowed for the imprisonment, without definitive evidence, of many more homosexual men. Although homosexuality was alive in the public consciousness of the time, it was, outside of the legal proceedings, unmentionable. In his 1894 poem, “Two Loves”, Lord Alfred Douglas calls it “The love that dare not speak its name.” And, appropriately, homosexuality is never explicitly mentioned in Robert Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; however, throughout this paper I will argue that repressed homosexuality is its implicit subject (Sanna).

Dr. Jekyll is so full of silence you can hear it ringing in the white spaces between words. And, as argued in Antonio Sanna’s article, “Silent Homosexuality,” this silence is a direct reference to Victorian homosexuality. In a scene early on in the novel, Mr. Utterson is talking with his cousin, Mr. Enfield, about a mysteriously repulsive man named Mr. Hyde. When Utterson asks his cousin why he did not inquire further about the enigmatic figure, he responds, “I had a delicacy. I feel very strongly about putting questions; it partakes too much of the style of the day of judgment. You start a question, and it’s like starting a stone. You sit quietly on the top of a hill; and away the stone goes, starting others; and presently some bland old bird (the last you would have thought of) is knocked on the head in his own back garden, and the family have to change their name. No, sir, I make it a rule of mine: the more it looks like Queer Street, the less I ask” (Stevenson 4). This brief explanation provides a backdrop for the entire novel: if the answer is unsavory, don’t ask the question. As their conversation ends, the chapter closes with the men agreeing never to discuss the matter again. In a similar vein, Dr. Jekyll time and again asks Utterson to let the matter of Hyde rest, to not pry into what is essentially a private matter. The novel also addresses the fear of breaking that silence. Blackmail is a theme returned to often in the novel. When Hyde tramples a young girl on the streets, Mr. Enfield threatens to “make such a scandal out of this, as should make his name stink from one end of London to the other.” (Stevenson 3). And Mr. Utterson, bewildered by Jekyll’s association with Mr. Hyde, thinks that Hyde must be blackmailing him. “Ah, it must be that; the ghost of some old sin, the cancer of some concealed disgrace” (Stevenson 11). The implication is that Hyde and Jekyll had an intimate relationship as young men, and that Hyde is now threatening to reveal that fact if he isn’t written into the doctor’s will. Although Jekyll’s situation in the novel is nothing of the sort, homosexual men of the time lived under constant threat of such “outings.”

From this veneration of propriety and reputation, and this aversion to prying questions, comes a duplicity: for noone of that time period or any other is entirely proper, in either their thoughts, desires, or actions. And so, necessarily, there arises a stark division between the public and private, between the unflattering needs and indulgences that are sated behind closed doors, and the composed, dignified face presented to the world. It is almost, you could say, like being two different people. This might seem an elegant way to go through life – to leave all that’s vulgar and undignified at home; to know, in your dealings with other people, exactly what to expect from them and exactly what is expected of yourself – but for the fact that the two halves do not split easily. A man like Dr. Jekyll, steeped in that Victorian culture of propriety his entire life, cannot be content to merely disguise his “undignified pleasures” (Stevenson 45). The problem is not so much that the Victorian population at large will find him repulsive, as that he finds himself repulsive. This is why many homosexuals, then and now, suffer so long in the closet: they were raised in the same environment as those who fear and are disgusted by them, and in their first brushes with sexuality, their reactions are often fear and disgust with themselves. A cliche with a lot of truth behind it: before you come out to the world, you must first come out to yourself. “Many a man,” Dr. Jekyll writes in a letter to Utterson, “would have even blazoned such irregularities as I was guilty of: but from the high views that I had set before me I regarded and hid them with an almost morbid sense of shame” (Stevenson 42).

The next step, then, in all that self-loathing bred into him as a respectable member of society, is to isolate the two halves of his person into two different people, so each can live without the constant, seemingly inherent conflict between the two. Perhaps Stevenson gives us such an elaborate, scientifically flamboyant solution to throw into relief how absurd it is to deny men a much simpler, more effective solution: to merge the two halves into a single, cohesive body. This was, of course, impossible at the time, and punishable by the destruction of one’s reputation and a considerable amount of time spent in jail. Perhaps it is also a commentary on those ridiculous “treatments” which were so common back then, said to cure men of their homosexual “affliction.”

It is clear that Stevenson has crafted a novel about repressed sexuality. The question remains: what is he trying to say about it, what is he trying to penetrate into the thick, pretty skull of Victorian society? It may be useful to look to Stevenson’s use of light and dark imagery.

Mr. Utterson beheld a marvelous 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 it lamps, which had never been extinguished or had been kindled afresh to combat this mournful reinvasion of darkness, seemed, in the lawyer’s eyes like a district of some city in a nightmare. . . 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” (Stevenson 16).

It is important to note that the narrator of this text is our honest, upright lawyer, whose “past was fairly blameless” (Stevenson 11). Yet even he feels uncomfortable with the police officer next to him. When light is cast upon the hidden, it appears ugly, immoral, not because the hidden thing has any inherent dirtiness or evil, but from the fact of its repression. The same conclusion can be drawn from Hyde’s appearance. Although he is described as younger than Dr. Jekyll, healthier and more muscular, his appearance always provokes in its viewer “a strong feeling of deformity” (Stevenson 5). Countless times throughout the novel he is described in this way, but the viewer can never put their finger on where the deformity lies. This is because there is no deformity; the sense of deformity comes from Hyde being the (previously) repressed aspect of Dr. Jekyll. Along the same lines, barring theological arguments, there is nothing inherently wrong with homosexuality. It appears ugly only because it has so long been repressed, the way skin covered for a period time by a bandage appears repulsively pale and moist when the bandage is finally removed.

Works Cited

  1. Sanna, Antonio. “Silent Homosexuality in Oscar Wilde’s Teleny and the Picture of Dorian Gray and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.” Law and Literature 24.1 (2012): 21,39,111-112. ProQuest. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.
  2. Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. New York: Dover Publications, 1991. Print.
  3. Crezo, Adrienne. Oscar Wilde Daydreaming. Digital image. 15 Oscar Wilde Quotes About Reading, Writing and Books. Writer’s Digest, 16 Oct. 2014. Web. 6 Dec. 2015. <http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/15-oscar-wilde-quotes-about-reading-writing-and-books&gt;.
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