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Women and Sadism in Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: “City in a Nightmare”
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In Late-Victorian London Dr. Henry Jekyll concocts a chemical mixture that enables him to enjoy the sensual side of his nature without blame or embarrassment by changing into the violent, dwarf-like sociopath, Mr. Hyde. This article aims to answer two essential questions about Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). First, what does Hyde represent? Second, why do women seem absent from the story? The many answers that critics have offered to the first question include the id or Freudian unconscious, the self-destructiveness of patriarchal society, the wish to escape the constraints of patriarchy, homosexuality, Jekyll’s (middle-class Victorian) hypocrisy, addiction, in particular to alcohol, the persistence of prehistoric characteristics in civilized humans, Stevenson’s guilt over his inauthentic writing, the indeterminacy of meaning and the nonunity of the human subject. The supposed absence of women has also prompted a host of critical explanations. The reasons given include Victorian censorship, the theme of homosexuality, the nonlimitation of possible interpretation, the theme of patriarchy’s failure and the lack of what Jekyll requires to avoid his deadly experiment, the love of a good woman.

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Without denying this multiplicity of meaning in the novel, this discussion suggests another significance for Hyde that relates to the question of women in the story. He represents the city in the person of a male sadist. As for the purported absence of women, an early reviewer set the tone for subsequent criticism by blandly claiming that “no women appear in the tale”; but, in fact, women are strikingly present as inhabitants of the city outside of the bachelor interiors of the male characters. They define the cityscape, inhabit the city’s streets and receive all the violence of Hyde either as direct victims or shocked witnesses—the little girl, the angry women who accuse Hyde of hurting the girl, the housekeeper, the match girl and the maidservant at the window. Women are not absent from the novel. They are key to a reading of the novel as it concerns the suppression of sexuality and the resulting sadistic behavior of men. “There is no harm in a voluptuary,” says Stevenson in a letter of 1887 about the novel. The problem is the “inverted lust” that results when “prurient fools call [sex] ‘immorality.’”

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde derives from a dream of Stevenson’s he first described in Scribner’s Magazine of January 1888: “I dreamed the scene at the window, and a scene afterwards … in which Hyde … took the powder and underwent the change in the presence of his pursuers.” Another dream Stevenson records in “A Chapter on Dreams” is also relevant; it has “the surgical theatre,” a “foggy evening,” a door to an apartment building, climbing stairs passing “women of the street,” another scene at a window and “pale parodies of women.” All of these images reappear in the novel, which could in a sense be read as a dream, not of Stevenson or Jekyll but of John Gabriel Utterson, Jekyll’s lawyer whose obsessive concern about Hyde drives the narrative. If we follow the symbols of Utterson’s dream of “some city in a night-mare”—the buildings, fog, doors, windows, houses, water and the actions related to them—we find the “invisible” women are really central to the novel’s meaning. Following these clues we find that the city is the equivalent of Jekyll and Hyde as sources of violence and mystery and that the shadowy women of the fogbound city are the hidden others of Utterson’s dream of the sadistic double—a dream that develops out of “the horrible part” of Enfield’s “Story of the Door”: “The man trampled calmly over the child’s body and left her screaming on the ground.”

Fanny Stevenson disapproved of the first version of her husband’s novel for its sensationalism, so, after “an angry dispute,” he burned it and started again. The objectionable first draft “dealt with material, perhaps sexual in nature, that a Victorian readership would have found unacceptable.” Richard Dury recognizes the sexual element in the novel and connects Stevenson’s “girl of maybe eight or...

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