Covert Aestheticism: Disability and “Narrative Prosthesis” in Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
“Through his brain, as through the last alembic, is distilled the refined essence of that thought which began with the Gods, and which they left him to carry out.”
– “Mr. Whistler’s ‘Ten O’Clock’,” James McNeil Whistler
As the fin de siècle, that beginning of an end, loomed in Great Britain, an aging Queen Victoria commenced her fifth decade on the English throne, at the time, a seat of waning world influence. Ten years prior, the Empire had lost Charles Dickens to the mysteries of death and in those years to come would lose the remainder of the Great Victorians: Matthew Arnold; Robert Browning1; Thomas Carlyle; George Eliot; and Alfred, Lord Tennyson among others. These were times of decline, times of degeneration; this was the age of the Late Victorians and it bore literary sensations such as Oscar Wilde, Olive Custance, Sarojini Naidu, Olive Schreiner, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Margaret Harkness, Thomas Hardy, and Robert Louis Stevenson. It also brought to prominence burgeoning artistic projects like decadence and aestheticism. However, for reasons to be herein detailed, the public denounced these projects as grotesque, unsightly and corruptive. Still, artists remained engaged in dialogue about these movements that championed art for art’s sake and sensation for its sake. Some writers, witnessing society’s vilification of decadence and aestheticism, worried about how such engagements would be received and thus deployed representational, metaphorical placeholders—narrative prosthetics2—through which they could deal with such matters. This is precisely the work Robert Louis Stevenson undertakes in his 1886 novella The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and why I have termed him a covert aesthete. By employing Edward Hyde’s body and its actions as the aforementioned surrogates, Stevenson devises a discourse that advocates for the emancipation of aestheticism from the shackles of societal stigma.
Part I: A Stigmatized Rendering of Aestheticism By Way of Decadence
In the spirit of the fin de siècle’s most infamous writer—Oscar Wilde, a bricoleur—I borrow from a favorite author, Raymond Carver, in offering the following, foregrounding inquiry: what do we talk about when we talk about aestheticism and decadence?3 Decadence emerged out of the budding aesthetic movement of the 1860s. In the “Conclusion” to his 1873 Studies in the History of the Renaissance, Walter Pater wrote of the decadent movement’s values: “we have an interval and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passions, the wisest […] in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time” (12). Decadence urged unbridled sensuality, unabashed hedonism. For this reason, it was generally treated as a “new and beautiful and interesting disease” (Symons 105)4. Though Arthur Symons penned this phrase in his 1893 essay “The Decadent Movement in Literature,” such contagion-coded language was not uncommon prior to the piece’s publication. For contagion was not unfamiliar to the Victorians; it was reality: the world struggled with the century’s fifth cholera pandemic from 1881-1896. And so, given the fin de siècle’s tendency toward anxiousness5, it is not difficult to imagine that the invocation of such laden language would have frightened people into thinking that degeneracy would catch and devolve into anarchy.
In the service of further contextualising decadence, it marked a radicalization of aestheticism. As has already been mentioned, aestheticism began to blossom in the 1860s but truly came into full flower a decade later, in the 1870s; this cultural pervasion helped secure its position at the fore of fin de siècle consciousness. As aesthete painter James McNeil Whistler articulated in his “Ten O’Clock” Lecture, aestheticism conceptualised art as “a goddess of dainty thought—reticent of habit, abjuring all obtrusiveness […] selfishly occupied with her own perfection only” (15). In other words, aestheticism pursued art not as a means to an end but as an end itself. Aestheticism realised the idealised notion of art for its own sake. However, because of the paranoia decadence aroused, the fear of orgies and opium, and because the seed of decadence lay within aestheticism, aestheticism too became afeared and was similarly condemned by society.6
Part II: Robert Louis Stevenson as Covert Aesthete
In order to reveal Robert Louis Stevenson’s veiled advocacy for the liberation of aestheticism, in Part II of this paper, I will trace decadence and the associative preconceptions of aestheticism onto the impaired, disabled existence of Edward Hyde—one purportedly as unsightly and stigmatized. As the story begins, Mr. Richard Enfield, the first of Stevenson’s surrogates for late Victorian society, recounts to Mr. Gabriel John Utterson his witnessing Hyde engaged in “undignified,” decadent behavior: he “trampled calmly over [a] child’s body and left her screaming on the ground” (59, 7). This incident is sufficiently notable to elicit that “disapproval […] that attach[es] to people who are seen as different”—stigma; Enfield expresses to Mr. Utterson, “I had taken a loathing to [Hyde] at first sight” (Love 173; The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde 7).
However, contrary to public opinion, seemingly ignorant of the evidence presented by the text, Hyde is beautiful.7 When proverbially placed side by side with Dr. Henry Jekyll, a paragon of virtue, both physically and otherwise, Hyde is “younger, lighter, happier in body” (57). And yet, in her essay “Stigma,” Heather Love, Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, details: “Once a person is stigmatized, other qualities tend to be interpreted through the lens of this trait” (175). Indeed; Hyde’s decadent revelry makes such an impression on Mr. Enfield that his perception of Hyde’s body is tainted with, nay dictated by bias. Enfield sees neither youthfulness nor grace but surmises, “There is something wrong with his appearance […] something downright detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked and yet I scarce know why. He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point” (The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde 10).
Unable to “specify” a bodily “point” “of deformity,” the public turns to the mind, where Whistler’s “dainty thought” and the art it inspires, so loved by aestheticism, is conceived (The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde 10; Whistler 15). Again, antithetical to popular culture’s understanding or lack thereof, Hyde is only a “disguise” (63). The transformation Jekyll undergoes is merely a physical one; it has no impact on his mental state. In other words, Hyde’s mind is that of the Doctor, “DCL, LLD, FRS, &c”—“an eminent and respected member of his profession” (11, 163). Still, Dr. Hastie Lanyon, a second, perhaps slightly more enlightened, surrogate of fin de siècle society, recognising the absence of physical impairment8, refuses to accept that the decadent Edward Hyde evades blight: “If [he] could go to one place, why could he not go to another? […] The more I reflected, the more convinced I grew that I was dealing with a case of cerebral,” aesthetic, “disease” (50-51).
Just as Oscar Wilde saw himself in Basil Hallward9—the creator—so too might Stevenson see himself in Dr. Jekyll.10 This is crucial to an understanding of what Stevenson has to say about fin de siècle artistic projects. Ambivalence accurately characterizes his feelings about decadence. Though “Hyde [is] indifferent to Jekyll,” throughout his “Full Statement of the Case,” Henry Jekyll expresses a real affection for Hyde, particularly his body which might be understood as a site of actualized, radical aestheticism—decadence (63). And yet, in informing Mr. Utterson of the “very great interest” he has “in poor Hyde,” Dr. Jekyll admits, “I fear he was rude” (20). As for aestheticism, Stevenson continues: “I do sincerely take a […] very great interest in that young man […] I wish you to […] bear with him and get his rights for him. I think you would, if you knew all” (The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde 20). At this moment, Utterson, a third surrogate of late Victorian society, is aware only of Enfield’s stigmatic perception of Hyde’s body. But “if [he] knew all,” if he knew the nature of Hyde’s mind, Stevenson as Dr. Jekyll insists Mr. Utterson would “get his rights for him”; if only society knew just how “dainty” aestheticism really was, the public, like Stevenson, would have advocated and fought for its liberation (The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde 20; Whistler 15). But they do not. And so, aestheticism remains stigmatized, Stevenson unsure of its fate—as he is of Hyde’s: “his face still moved with a semblance of life, but life was quite gone” (44-45). Indeed, the novella’s final moments are preoccupied with such vexed questions as: is Dr. Jekyll’s “Full Statement of the Case” actually his, is it Hyde’s, or some indistinguishable amalgam; is Hyde’s death a suicide, a murder…and of whom; et cetera, et cetera… The unexpected and somewhat sudden establishment of a multitude of interpretations engenders in Stevenson’s reader a certain sense of instability, indeed uncertainty. This instability reminds one of Thomas Hardy’s “Darkling Thrush” that, “In blast-beruffled plume,” chooses “to fling his soul / Upon the growing gloom,” that, despite being whipped about by the wind, flies on…singing (lines 22-24). It conjures the beautiful warring against the vulgarly real.
As the twentieth century dawned, romanticism found itself in gridlock with modernism, resulting in the propagation of aestheticism and decadence—artistic projects of the 1860s and 1870s. However, because fin de siècle society was given to anxiousness, and because decadence urged the radical actualization of aesthetic notions, aestheticism was swiftly stigmatized. Fearful of being stigmatized themselves, stigma’s “repercussions […] far-reaching […] affect[ing] social recognition […] friendship and sex, housing, and freedom from violence,” artists employed the clandestine practice of metaphor so as to disguise their beliefs while still covertly engaging with these projects (Love 173). Despite the uncertainty he feels about decadence and the future of aestheticism, Robert Louis Stevenson’s conviction, that the liberation of the unsightly from the prison of preconception would be a societal good, is unequivocal. Indeed, just as disabled existences would be eased if freed from stigma, so too would the emancipation of artistry from that associative burden allow for more unfettered creation.
Afterword: Some Thoughts on “Narrative Prosthesis”
In having composed this paper, I acknowledge the work of David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder, Professors of Disability and Human Development at the University of Illinois: Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse. Indeed, I am cognizant that Robert Louis Stevenson, in his The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, uses disability “as an opportunistic metaphorical device” and that “while stories rely upon the potency of disability as a symbolic figure, they rarely take up disability as an experience of societal or political dimensions” (Mitchell and Snyder 47, 48). And yet I opine that we, littérateurs and disability scholars, must consider these sociopolitical dimensions more expansively.
If “disabled experiences” are depicted truthfully, to my mind a political statement all its own for reason of its eschewal of caricature, I pose the question: why must they be engaged with as only that, what we flippantly term “disabled experiences”? At present, our understanding of disabled experience is too narrow or, perhaps, not malleable enough. Because the stigmatic phenomenon—one that affects all kinds of people marked as different—“is part of the complex of factors that transform impairment into disability,” I would like to suggest that disability be positioned as an issue less concerned with corporeal difference and more so with societal incapacitation generally (Love 173).
Stevenson, having lived all his life with chronic illness, experienced this societal incapacitation. In a letter he wrote to artist P. G. Hamerton in 1881, Stevenson stated, “I had a fair experience of that kind of illness when all […] turn round upon the streets and look after you with a look that is only too kind not to be cruel,” id est one of pity or condescension (The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson 244). As a result, he was equipped to paint a poignant, familiar picture of disabled existence—one in which once difference is detected, it is swiftly globalized—one that I, an individual with a visual impairment, often assumed to be cognitively impaired also, identified with. What I forward as Stevenson’s covert, prosthetic engagement (by way of Hyde) with another marginalized community (in his case, his cultural context, fin de siècle aesthetes) demonstrates that because stigma touches myriad minority groups, if disabled experiences are accurately detailed—in a way representative of minority experience writ large—such stories might serve to extend that feeling of representation to other communities who have suffered the repercussions of stigmatization.
However, I also want to affirm that by associating impairment with other stigmatized identities, as, say, Margaret Harkness does with the economically challenged “deformed shoeblack” Tim in A City Girl: A Realistic Story, as A. C. Doyle does with the “crippled” “West Indian” Miss Penclosa in The Parasite, or the “sinister cripple” and “professional beggar” Hugh Boone in “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” writers further reinforce society’s respective preconceptions (Harkness 78; The Parasite 4; “The Man with the Twisted Lip” 235). Of course, this will only cease to occur if and when stigma and prejudice cease to exist. And so, we must continue to interrogate the following: can we reconcile our intersectional, coalitional desires with society’s stigmatic proclivity? If so, how? And if not, how might we hierarchize the artistic dictums arising from such incompatible inclinations?
Doyle, A. Conan. The Parasite. The Wild(e) Nineties. Skidmore College, Fall 2020.
Doyle, Arthur Conan, and Christopher Morley. “The Man with the Twisted Lip.” The Complete Sherlock Holmes. Doubleday, 1930, pp. 229–244.
Hake, Egmont. “Regeneration: A Reply to Max Nordau.” The Fin de Siècle: A Reader in Cultural History c. 1880-1900. Edited by Sally Ledger and Roger Luckhurst, Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 17–19.
Hardy, Thomas. “The Darkling Thrush.” The Wild(e) Nineties. Skidmore College, Fall 2020.
Harkness, Margaret. A City Girl: A Realistic Story. Edited by Tabitha Sparks, Broadview Press, 2017.
Ledger, Sally, and Roger Luckhurst. “Degeneration.” The Fin de Siècle: A Reader in Cultural History c. 1880-1900. Edited by Sally Ledger and Roger Luckhurst, Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 1–2.
Love, Heather. “Stigma.” Keywords for Disability Studies. Edited by Rachel Adams et al., New York University Press, 2015, pp. 173–176.
Mitchell, David T., and Sharon L. Snyder. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse. University of Michigan Press, 2000.
Pater, Walter. “Conclusion.” Literature and Culture at the Fin de Siècle. Edited by Talia Schaffer, Pearson, 2007, pp. 10–12.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, To His Family and Friends. Edited by Sidney Colvin, First ed., I, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Tales of Terror. Edited by Robert Mighall, Penguin Group, 2002.
Symons, Arthur. “The Decadent Movement in Literature.” The Fin de Siècle: A Reader in Cultural History c. 1880-1900. Edited by Sally Ledger and Roger Luckhurst, Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 104–111.
Wilde, Oscar. The Letters of Oscar Wilde. Edited by Rupert Hart-Davis, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962.
Whistler, James McNeil. “Mr. Whistler’s ‘Ten O’Clock’.” Literature and Culture at the Fin de Siècle. Edited by Talia Schaffer, Pearson, 2007, pp. 13–18.
Carver, Raymond. Where I’m Calling From: New and Selected Stories. Signed First ed., The Franklin Library, 1988.
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- The death of Robert’s wife and fellow Romantic poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, predated his by some thirty years.
- I borrow and adapt this terminology from David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder, Professors of Disability and Human Development at the University of Illinois—authors of Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse. For more on this matter, see my “Afterword: Some Thoughts on ‘Narrative Prosthesis.’”
- This line is adapted from the title of a story included in Carver’s 1988 compilation Where I’m Calling From: “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”
- I extend my thanks to fellow aspiring academic Hannah Sacks for reminding me that, for some, it may not go without saying that describing decadence as a “disease” predicates it as an impairment (Symons 105). For more on this, see, perhaps, “Unhealthy Disabled: Treating Chronic Illnesses as Disabilities” by Susan Wendell, Professor Emerita of Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University.
- Anxiousness in the fin de siècle could be attributed to a multitude of stressors, including Max Nordau’s “weighty” and widely read “tome,” Degeneration, which “sternly suggest[ed] that [the Late Victorians were] on the wrong road and that a fate of a most horrible description [was] rapidly befalling [them]—an affliction in most people’s view worse than annihilation. Madness [was] shown to be insidiously invading [their] minds” (Ledger and Luckhurst 1; Hake 17).
- This formation of preconception by way of association is the result of what is called “Stigma.” This phenomenon will be further dealt with in “Part II: Robert Louis Stevenson as Covert Aesthete” and is deftly detailed by Heather Love, Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania in her essay of the same name.
- For these remarks I am indebted to mentor and friend Barbara Black, Professor of English at Skidmore College.
- I posit this recognition is indicated by the following: “If [he] could go to one place, why could he not go to another?” (The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde 50, emphasis added).
- Oscar once wrote in a letter, The Picture of Dorian Gray “contains much of me […] Basil Hallward is what I think I am” (352).
- Dr. Jekyll too may be aptly assigned this title—creator; “his laboratory or […] dissecting rooms,” that once belonged to a “celebrated surgeon” whose “tastes” were “anatomical,” is a coded allusion to Victor Frankenstein (26).
About the Author
Aymon E. Langlois is an award-winning writer, aspiring scholar of disability and/in nineteenth century transatlantic literatures, and lover of his tribe. From Belfast, ME, Langlois currently attends Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York where, as a member of the Periclean Honors Forum, he is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in English. His fiction has appeared in Canvas as well as Adelaide Literary Magazine. You can find out more by visiting his website (aymonelanglois.com) or following him on Instagram (@aytypical) or Twitter (@ay_typical_).