Trevor Grimshaw (University Campus Suffolk)

Posted on Friday, March 5th, 2010

‘Jekyll and Hyde: A Response To a New Elite’

I am proposing a paper in response to the call for papers for the conference, one that locates Stevenson in his political, cultural and historical context. The paper would focus on Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as a response to the emergence in the mid and late nineteenth century of a new ruling elite, the nature of its claim to power, wealth and status and the vulnerability of this claim in the light of late nineteenth century anxieties.

Up to the nineteenth century the ruling elite had been one of aristocracy and of prominent non-titled families, whose claim eminence was one of birthright. The larger and more complex social structures of the mid and late nineteenth century created the need for a new elite ( with a consequent expansion in new public schools to produce  it, the origin of the close loyalties of the closed professional circle in the novella ).

This new elite required a different justification of its position, being unable to claim an ancestral one. Consequently it relied on a moral claim, the still enduring one of the “Great and the Good;” this claim is demonstrated privately among themselves and publically to the society over which they hold power (represented in the novella by the servants) by an  external austerity that masks individual differences and creates a recognisable type. In Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde Stevenson presents a post Darwinian challenge to the justification of the new nineteenth century elite; mankind’s animal heritage, shared by the new elite and those they rule over, functions as a leveller and removes their claim to moral superiority. Thus Hyde’s murder victim is an M.P., financial corruption and forged documentation are among Hyde’s strategies to avoid detection and the professional circle disintegrates when they  realise that Hyde is one of themselves. Focus on the supposed sexual dimension of the text has arguably obscured a precisely directed critique that perhaps remains relevant beyond the nineteenth century.

Categorized as Abstracts

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