STEVENSON SAYS ‘TAKE OFF THE MASKS’
Could our fast-paced, approval-seeking generation use some advice from Robert Louis Stevenson about authenticity? In an age bent towards social perfection and fueled by the sounds of applause, we are quick to highlight the good and even quicker to delete traces of the bad. Similarly, the Victorian Age was a period marked by virtuous appearances and fueled by progress. Men and women liked the thought of control — controlling everything from international economies to manners at the dinner table. Even Henry Jekyll readily admits that the course of his life had been “nine tenths a life of effort, virtue, and control” (1811) and perhaps this is why he feels such a great deal of freedom the moment he steps into Edward Hyde’s body. For the first time, Dr. Jekyll is without restraint and though he is sure the experiment is “wholly toward the worse”, he feels as a schoolboy would, stripping off his lendings and springing “headlong into the sea of liberty” (1812). In contrast to those that would submit to tight laced social codes of the time, Stevenson’s character Mr. Hyde is a figure completely free of restraint; he unleashes the beast that is within and roams around the eerie streets of London, with little fear of damaging his own reputation in the process.
From the start we read imagery of glittering storefronts in London with “freshly painted shutters, well-polished brasses, and general cleanliness and gaiety” (1781). Similar to its people, the streets project a certain image — one of pleasantry and vibrance, like “rows of smiling saleswomen” (1781). Meanwhile, impoverished families remained cramped in tenements, slums, and rookeries “only a stone’s throw away from the large elegant houses of the rich” (Daniels). Much like today, the wealthy and the poor lived incredibly close to one another, though they felt worlds apart. This sense of contrast is present all throughout Stevenson’s work; it’s seen in the London architecture, economies, living conditions, and ideas about morality, religion, and science — nowhere is it more evident that in the mind of Dr. Jekyll as his own thoughts war against one another.
In a Christian context, this language might echo the words of the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans. Paul speaks of this fallen, sinful nature present in every man and woman, writing “for I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature” and goes on to speak of the internal war being waged within him, similar to the moral and spiritual tension Stevenson writes of in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Stevenson’s family atmosphere growing up was described to be “torn between the obligation to do good and the seductiveness of evil” and Stevenson himself recounts many memories of lying awake at night frantic about slipping into a kind of “eternal ruin” (1780). With a Calvinistic upbringing, Stevenson understood this “sense of sin lurking beneath apparent virtue” (1778) which clearly comes into play during the period of ‘refined sensibilities’ and strict social expectations.
This idea of restraining and concealing brought about a fortress of superficialities, of which guarded every kind of ‘respectable’ man or woman during the Victorian Era. It is no surprise that there became a growing sense of pessimism that pervaded many artistic circles during the time, flooding works of literature, poetry and paintings. Though not all writers and artists held such a view, there were many that refused to get swept away by the enchantment wrapped up in notions of progress and propriety.
Stevenson was one of many who sought to expose the true nature of things in a world operating out of false appearances. He was a man who firmly believed in the duality of human nature — this idea that each of us is split between two warring forces, one of good and one of evil. He sought to dig deeper, to “reveal the underlying truths of the human condition” and in turn, to expose the hidden evils within every human soul. As put by Dr. Jekyll himself, “I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two” (1811). Stevenson crafts Dr. Jekyll’s final words as a signal of defeat, that despite the doctor’s strategic attempts to control his evil attachments, this ‘purely evil’ double, Mr. Hyde ends up crushing him completely. Stevenson’s concluding paragraphs of Jekyll and Hyde counter popular Victorian opinion, refuting the idea that through powers of science and technology there would come a time when “eventually human reason would solve all the problems of humanity” (23). Despite his intelligence, Dr. Jekyll is powerless against the forces of evil — these forces that inevitably create “a certain callousness” within his own soul are what lead him into destruction (1818).
Interestingly, when Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde was initially released, the majority of readers identified more so with the villain of the story.
Though human beings innately long for authenticity, it seems that it is in our very broken, screwed-up nature to hide behind what we believe to be ‘acceptable behavior’. In the Victorian Age, this looked something like playing the part, wearing the corset, speaking amiably and politely at social gatherings; all the while masking anything that might be considered unpleasant in the sight of Queen Victoria herself. In today’s media saturated age, this might look like your average Facebook page, strewn with awards, seemingly exciting events; featuring brightly edited photos and children with matching outfits — meanwhile, there are feelings of grave disappointment, irritation, loneliness, and heartbreak buried beneath chipper expressions. Victorians alike were instructed to ignore scandalous situations and encouraged to keep conversation light, staying afloat while drifting through bubbly, superficial topics. These role-playing strategies have morphed throughout the years but nonetheless still exist today. It’s not until someone like Stevenson or Dickens ventures out to poke holes in these fancy facades that men and women can quit the playacting and if they choose to do so, make conscious strides to live more authentically.