I See Homosexual People

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In her book Sexual Anarchy, Elaine Showalter contends that Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr.Hyde is actually describing "the nearly hysterical terror of revealing forbidden emotions between men....a case study of male hysteria" (107).  She goes on to further state her case, citing the use of the word "queer" (112) and the way the "male homosexual body is also represented in the narrative in a series of images suggestive of anality and anal intercourse" (113).

Showalter's assertions are interesting, and should remind us as writers that while we may think we are just spinning a simple tale of multiple personality disorder, our readers will bring their own ideas to the story.  They may end up reading things we did not write, or may sense a subconscious subtext that, real or imagined, we did not intend to include.  However, in this case it seems that Showalter may be over-reaching in her analysis of the story.

First, Showalter begins by suggesting that the author may have been gay.  She writes that "Stevenson himself was the object of extraordinary passion on the part of other men" (107).  While she does go on to say that "Stevenson's real sexuality is much less the issue in Jekyll and Hyde" (107), she implies that the book is a way for him to explore his own conflicted personality and most secret desires.

Using this logic, however, Stephen King is (or at least wants to be) a mass-murderer, Jennifer Cruisie has had sex with legions of men (doubtful), and Mark Twain was a racist.  Likewise, even if the book is a discourse on homosexuality, it doesn't automatically follow that Stevenson was gay.

Showalter cites examples of the personification of homosexuality in Jekyll and Hyde--"Hyde travels in the 'chocolate-brown fog' that beats about the 'back-end of the evening'; while the streets he traverses are invariably 'muddy' and 'dark,' Jekyll's house, with its two entrances" (113) is, to Showalter, the most explicit example of a man's body.

Interestingly, I had never noticed these things before, but after the Showalter article I started seeing homosexual references everywhere.  Stevenson writes "the stick with which the deed had been done...was...rare...wood" (34).  When Utterson and Enfield encounter Dr. Jekyll at one point, they have a conversation where Utterson tells Jekyll "'You should be out whipping up the circulation like Mr. Enfield and me'" and Jekyll replies "'I should like to very much; but no, no, no, it is quite impossible; I dare not'" (Stevenson 52).  Near the end, "where Jekyll perhaps might have succumbed, Hyde rose to the importance of the moment" (Stevenson 95).

It is interesting how a work of fiction may have many interpretations, and how, once exposed to a certain point of view, the reader may begin to see evidence supporting that particular interpretation.  For example, some reviewers feel "the relationship between Jekyll and Hyde is also characterized as almost a father and son relationship, and reflects further ambivalence on Stevenson's part towards living in a house purchased for him by his father" (Danahay 129).  At the time of its publication, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was "quoted widely in sermons...as an example of the dangers of sin and vice" (Danahay 134).

So, is Stevenson's book rife with homosexual imagery?  In an effort to study reader expectations, I picked a sampling of books from my own shelf and inspected them for passages that could be construed as relating to homosexuality or the human body.  Here is what I found.  Charlotte Bronte swings both ways in Jane Eyre.  Early on the narrator says "to-night I was to be Miss Miller's bedfellow; she helped me to undress" (Bronte 42).  Later, though, Jane's attention turns to "Mr. Brocklehurst, buttoned up in a surtout, and looking loner, narrower, and more rigid than ever" (Bronte 59).

Despite Dumbledore's predilections, J K Rowling mostly focuses on hetero (if somewhat underaged) desires.  In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, "Hermione grimly" tells Harry to "'Watch your frog, it's escaping'" (Rowling 374).  Harry realizes too late that "he was indeed squeezing his bullfrog so tightly that its eyes were popping" (Rowling 375).  However, there are a few homosexual images, as Hermione has "suspected this ever since Filch accused you of ordering Dungbombs" (Rowling 374).

Even Elmore Leonard can not resist including homosexual images in his writing.  In Leonard's The Hot Kid we find this very revealing passage: "'Yeah, picking nuts. But he's always let me have my head'" (171).

Obviously, these examples are very contrived and almost (or extremely) silly.  However, they do prove that we as readers can inject almost any context we wish into a book, and then find the evidence to support our claims.  It is important to look at ourselves and our own prejudices when we are examining writing.  The danger of reading too much into a work is that we will be unable to convince others when we have valid points.  For example, while Showalter probably has many good and interesting ideas, I will view any literary criticism of hers with suspicion in the future.

Works Cited


Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Dover Thrift Edition. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications Inc., 2002. Print.

Danahay, Martin A. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. 2nd edition. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2005. Print.

Leonard, Elmore. The Hot Kid. Paperback. New York: Harper Collins, 2005. Print.

Rowling, J. K.. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Hardcover. New York: Scholastic Press, 2003. Print.

Showalter, Elaine. Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siecle. New York: Viking, 1990. Print.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Travels with a Donkey. Art-Type Edition. New York: Books, Inc., Unknown. Print.

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6 Comments

Matt,

I laughed quite a bit while reading this. I think your quotations from other texts quite obviously points to the absurdity of Showalter's claims.

KL Grady said:

I can't stop laughing. Your title was fab, but your quotes of the story are cash money gold. Awesome.

Mike Arnzen said:

Oh you frisky reader, you! Great stuff -- you make a lot of savvy points, as you go along, and you have a good time with it. Nothing wrong with disagreeing with the critic, but Showalter does provide evidence for her analysis of the subtext, so that's all one can ask a person to do: explain what parts of the text lead to such interpretations, and then we need to decide for ourselves if we are persuaded to agree. And it's important for me to note that just because I assigned Showalter, doesn't mean that there aren't other critical interpretations out there -- indeed, there may be some pubished critics who share your argument! Critics always know their theories are open to debate, and publishing them leads to discussion.

Your point about how as writers, we offer ourselves up to interpretations like this, is very important. We have no control over what a person will "read between the lines" and even if we try to control it, readers will pick up on that and wonder why one "protests too much." We simply have to let it be. Our writing, once published, is a public artifact and we don't 'own' it the same way we did when it was 'private' property. And sometimes, being very open to multiple interpretations can have many benefits, because our writing can reach many readers. Indeed, fiction that has multivalent possible meanings are the stories that stand the test of time as literary masterpieces.

Great work, Matt. Love your close reading and use of sources. Keep it up.
-- Mike Arnzen

Charles S. J. said:

I haven't read Showalter's claims, but I'm a firm believer that TSCDJMH can be interpreted from a homosexual point of view. And not at all for the reasons you cite.

It has been shown that Stevenson, while not necessarily gay himself had many homosexual friends. It is then not completely foolish to think that he could have taken some of the problems/challenges they faced in a Victorian age (both from society and from themselves) to feed his novel.

More direct references to homosexuality in TSCDJMH would be recurrent references to blackmail (very heavily used against wealthy homosexuals during the Victorian era), reputation, duality (the face one presents to society, heterosexual and the "other face" that is disreputable), self-loathing, the exclusive maleness of the "cast" of the novel (the bachelorhood of the main characters....).

I don't think one HAS to see it from that point of view, but to dismiss it entirely is in my opinion foolish.

Matt Duvall Author Profile Page said:

Hi Charles,

Thanks for commenting on my blog! I'm very open to a good analysis of Jekyll and Hyde as an allegory for homosexuality. My point in this blog was that Showalter, for me, did not present that good analysis. As you pointed out, it can be interpreted as such, but "not at all for the reasons" I cited. The reasons I cited came from Showalter's analysis, which I felt was not well-founded. If you get a chance to read the article, it's very thought-provoking, and the first few pages actually had very interesting ideas.

On another note, if Stevenson was speaking about homosexuality, was he saying it's evil? And if so, did he really feel that way, or was that how the society of the time viewed it?

Charles S. J. said:

Thank you for answering to my comment.

Your questions are interesting, and I reflected upon them before answering. In my very own opinion (once again I must stress I, by no means, intend to say it is the only interpretation possible) Stevenson does not mean to present homosexuality as a disgusting sickness. Though I think it is fair to assume that in those time, even the most liberal views would have been quite conservative to us. I think simply that he introduces three bachelors to us. They could be heterosexual, I think they are not. The total absence of women in the book is not a hazard, I think. Indeed, they are also said to have been "very tight" since college. I don't think I need to say here what went on (goes on?) in public schools and universities at that time. Maybe they know "things" about each others. And notice that Utterson suspects this kind of relationship between Hyde and Jekyll (an older wealthy man with a young lower class man - a staple of 19th century homosexual writing and, indeed, quite the reality at the time).

However, many homosexuals in those days would not actually have had a proper sex life. Fear of gossip, very own self-loathing, etc. For me, JekyllI is that kind of individual. Fearful of what others might say, what himself thinks of homosexuality, and sex in general (the repression of sex in Vctiorian society), he doesn't act on it. But when finally his potion allows him to become the "bad" part of him, he can act on it. It is very easy to forget, what with the many (bad) movies that have been made off the book, that never the deeds of Hyde are really explained in the book. They say they're "atrocious" but would they be that atrocious to us right now? Were they atrocious in the "gay people are a thing of the devil and should be killed and castrated" kind of way? (in which way it is definitely Victorian society's views, not ours nowadays or even Stevenson's I think) Or are they really atrocious in a "he has sex with the corpse of children and animals" kind of way? (in which case, well... You know.). However, there is a middle of the road (my opinion): Hyde is not JUST Jekyll's homosexuality. He is the expression of everything that is bad in him (and, in the 19th century, from the viewpoint of Jekyll, it would have included his homosexuality). By repressing it for so long, when he transforms into Hyde only the seediest part of his sexual desires are expressed - not love, caring, etc. Only sexual desire, and with that all the bad aspects of his personality which enforce a possibly evil person. A kind of sadist probably.

I could mention other things, but it would turn this comment in an essay and not, well, a comment on a blog. However, I'd be delighted to know your opinion.

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