Hilary J. Beattie (Columbia University)

Posted on Friday, March 5th, 2010

‘Stevenson’s Mirrored Images or, Games of Hyde and Seek’

W. E. Henley once in later life observed of Robert Louis Stevenson that he ‘could not be in the same room with a mirror but he must invite its confidences every time he passed it … he was never so much in earnest, never so well pleased … as when he wrote about himself’.  Despite these alleged narcissistic preoccupations, the mirror itself is used rather rarely as a fictional device or image in Stevenson’s work, in fact almost exclusively in a group of stories from the mid-1880s embodying his ‘strong sense of man’s double being’, namely, ‘Markheim’, ‘Olalla’ and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

The purpose of this paper, in keeping with the conference theme of locating and orientating Stevenson within literary and cultural contexts, is to give close readings of these three stories and other, related material (mainly poems).  My aim in so doing is twofold: first, to situate his use of the mirror as a plot device within Romantic and Gothic traditions of literary iconology, as analyzed, e.g., by Theodore Ziolkowski (1977) and Stefano Ferrari (2002); second, more importantly, to identify what is distinctive about Stevenson’s use of the theme.  In other words, how do the shifting roles given to mirrors in these stories reflect underlying preoccupations and hidden meanings, especially regarding sexuality, gender and identity, that also surface elsewhere in his work?  And how do they foreshadow writing by modernist authors like Rilke and Borges?

My theoretical framework is provided by psychoanalytic theory concerning the role of mirrors and ‘mirroring’ in emotional development, from Freud and Lacan to Kohut and beyond.  This includes the ways in which mirror games, fantasies and transferential relationships may be used in the service of identity formation and separation from significant others, as well as the mastery of traumatic overstimulation and loss.

By way of a coda, my investigation throws unexpected light on the notorious four-way dispute that erupted in 1888 between Stevenson, his friend Henley, and two important women in his life, his cousin, Katharine de Mattos, and his wife, Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson.  The contested short story that sparked the conflagration proves to illustrate in striking ways some of the themes of this paper.

Categorized as Abstracts

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To contact the conference organisers:

Scott Hames
Tel:+44 (0)1786 466205

Adrian Hunter
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