Social Sensitivity

This novel will come as a refreshing change for readers and movie-goers accustomed to stories about self-indulgent and licentious characters. It is no longer currently fashionable for authors to write from the point of view of characters who value self-restraint and courtesy above achieving personal goals. Readers who have never read the works of Dickens or Tolstoy may find this short novel a good start to the study of classic novels.

Though this is a story about an educated, upper-class snob who learns to his horror that he has shameful, base drives like anyone else, the author has transcended his own elitist culture. There is no hint that the child trampled by Hyde, or the witness to the murder Hyde commits, are anything but our fellow humans, worthy of respect though they are female, lower-class, and poor.

The physical appearance of Mr. Hyde bears some resemblance to the racist descriptions of stereotypical “Irish” persons in newspapers and political tracts of the late 1800s, and to non-British Caucasians. To this extent, the author does not transcend his own elitist upbringing. Mr. Hyde is supposed to represent the “base drives” from which Dr. Jekyll would like to free himself, and so he has the physical appearance that racists scorned in the so-called “lower orders.” Social Darwinists regarded the Irish people and non-British Caucasians as less highly evolved than the British and Northern Europeans. (Fortunately for fiction readers this particular form of racism has become less common in English-language fiction since World War II.)

It is also worth noting that in this story there is not a single person of color, nor a foreign-born character nor a native speaker of a language other than English. This is just barely plausible for a story set in London in the 1870s. At the barest minimum, one of Jekyll’s friends could have been born and raised in India under the British Raj. Stevenson is describing a very circumscribed society, for all that men of wealth and power walked the same grubby streets at the same time of day as the workers and prostitutes of London.

During his 1879 trip to America, Stevenson traveled in a second-class cabin, making several visits to the steerage, where he was appalled and fascinated by the passengers and their traveling conditions. He carefully noted his observations in a journal that became the basis for a non-fiction book. Stevenson incorporated his observations and perceptions into much of his writing, but few autobiographical elements appeared in his fiction.

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