An Antithesis and It’s Letdown

Wise and honest, Mary Reilly proves a very relatable character. She expresses sentiments and perceptions, both painful and hopeful, that many readers have personally felt but perhaps have not vocalized or identified. Throughout the first half of this novel, the most relatable quality may be the way Mary deals with the pain of the past. Rather than deal with the pain by contemplating it face-on, she suppresses it and finds solace and salvation in soothing else or someone else. Mary earnestly hopes in Dr. Jekyll for the redemption of the mark her father left on her.

Writing her story out for “Master”, Mary paints a haunting image of her father, with his “low, sick laugh” and merciless outlashes. Though Mary notes that she has “seldom thought on the past and [has] tried to put it behind [her]” (37), the scars of her fathers abuse prove deep and dark, despite her suppression of them. Page 35 provides perhaps the most telling remark of her sentiments. As she toils in her garden, Mary reflects, “I believe to hate my father would be to give in and make small my real feeling, which is strong but not like hate, as that seems simple, pure and clean” (35). Here, Mary indicates her feelings towards her father are deeper and and fouler than hatred, and, in comparison, hatred seems “pure and clean”. Significantly, Mary’s view of her father as not a monster, but as “an ordinary man” prone to drinking, supplements the view that her childhood tainted her view of men, or of humanity in general. She believes most men are prone to ill, as her father was. Discussing the closing of Dr. Jekyll’s school and the philosophy of moral forces, Mary states her belief that good doesn’t seem to come naturally to humans. Unable to forgive her father (as stated on page 36), Mary instead finds healing in the virtue of her Master. His goodness grants her hope in mankind.

For Mary, Dr. Jekyll stands as the antithesis of her father, as the redemption of man in her eyes. Though she seems to have mild romantic feelings towards her Master, perhaps he also symbolizes the ideal father for her after her experience of a father so cruel and savage. Jekyll’s patience, kindness, and interest in Mary quickly becomes her source of life and self-worth. More than this, I would submit that the reason Mary has such a difficult time accepting Dr. Jekyll’s moral failings might lies in the fact that she has elevated him above reproach in order to cope with her past.

During her visits to Mrs. Farraday’s, Mary processes the innuendos of her Master’s misconduct by telling herself, “that doubtless this was some good thing Master had contrived, to lighten the suffering around [her]” (66). When she sees the bloody bedroom at Mrs. Farraday’s and the monogrammed handkerchief condemning her beloved Master, her confidence in his goodness wavers. Yet still, she clings to his innocence, doing “whatever [she] can to stay calm, so that, when this is all made clear to me, [she] may find the best way to serve him” (110). She refuse to let herself think, lest she see the truth.

What it Means to be Human

The narrative of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde exudes tension. This theme (tension), which we’ve been analyzing in different forms and measures all semester long, bellows from every page as it composes not only the predicament of this novella, but the predicament of every human life.

It is the internal warfare between good and evil that wages within the breast of every human being. This combat, which Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde highlights, constitutes the fundamental friction responsible for every other character tension we have noted in previous books. This battle, inherent to man, propels the plight of Dr. Jekyll and rouses every reader.

From the first introduction, Mr. Hyde is presented as a creature bereft of humanness, as he is described as “troglodytic”. This description aligns with the theory of de-evolution that was circulating during Stevenson’s time. De-evolution surmised slum inhabitants, but more specifically criminals, were the pinnacle of biological human regression. Within this context, Hyde represents an erosion of human nature.

The textual allegations of Hyde being sub-human raises the reverse question: what does it mean to be human? As one traces his de-evolution, one can likewise discern what true human nature means, for it is against this standard that Hyde’s behavior appears starkly fallacious and inhuman. These two subjects— the definition of humanity and the definition of inhumanity— prove inseparable.

In his narrative, Jekyll himself pinpoints perhaps the cardinal characteristic of human nature: the very duplicity with which he struggles. He laments how his transformation to Hyde “severed in me those provinces of good and ill which divide and compound man’s dual nature” (76). Furthermore, Jekyll contends it “the curse of mankind that these incongruous faggots were thus bound together—that in the agonized womb of consciousness, these polar twins should be continuously struggling” (77). In his attempt to separate these natures, then, Jekyll takes a deathly stab at his humanity. To be only wholly good or only wholly evil would eliminate the humanity from that being. If humans were morally perfect, with no inclination towards evil, they would be gods but not humans. If humans were solely desiring of evil and had no inclination towards what is good, they would be devils. The ability to discern between right and wrong, the inner conscience of man that compels us towards what is right and burdens our hearts and minds with guild when we have done wrong, is largely what it means to be human. In his final descent, as Edward Hyde takes over Dr. Jekyll more completely and as he becomes only evil with no inclination towards good, he becomes a “child of Hell” with “nothing human” within him (88).

While every human struggles with the internal combat between right and wrong, redemption, as Jekyll finds, cannot be found formally detaching these two natures. His discovery poses another question: if detachment proves not the redemption of this dilemma, what redeems us? While duplicity marks human nature, there is also a longing within every breast to be redeemed. This desire to be redeemed, in some shape or form, also cardinally constitutes what it means to be a human.

Jane Eyre and the Macabre

It’s difficult to pin down Jane Eyre. I mean that both in reference to the character and to the book itself. Jane Eyre (the person) straddles the line of servant and victorian noble, while Jane Eyre (the book) straddles genres. It’s part Gothic, part Romance, part fictional autobiography. The book can not seem to decide what it wants to be, just like the main character. Clever, Brontë, I see what you did there.
Now, it is very apparent how the romantic and autobiographic elements play into the narrative. The entirety of the novel is written as an autobiographical tale from Jane’s perspective and a large part of the novel is dedicated to her romance with Mr. Rochester. Personally, however, I am much more interested in how Brontë incorporated the gothic elements into her story. Partially because it is still to early in the year for me to funnel my macabre fascination into halloween decorating, but mostly because I have just recently completed Wuthering Heights, written by none other than Charlotte Bronte’s own sister, Emily. I have had an ongoing fascination regarding why Jane Eyre became so popular while Wuthering Heights withered in comparison. The two were written and released very close together and many people believed at the beginning that they had been written by the same person. Now, this topic is a very complicated one and so deserves it’s own full discussion, but I do think it had something to do with the differing in application of gothic elements. Wuthering Heights, of course, was much more heavy-handed in it’s use of all things dark and spooky, but I argue that Charlotte is the more creative of the two in regards to how she incorporates it into other elements of the narrative.
Charlotte Bonte is fantastic at using imagery to set a mood. She brings you in and makes you sit in the tension of the world she has painted. Part of this is the limited first person perspective — we are learning at the same time as Jane, and so whenever she feels uneasy, we also feel the tension. The most obvious example is the scene at the end of chapter twenty where Jane is left with an injured Mason as the mysterious figure that attacked him is just next door. Jane is left with what seems only a single lit candle. She describes the room as a terrified person would, seeing Mason himself as “eyes now shut,  now opening, now wandering through the room, now fixed on me, and ever glazed with the dulness of horror”. Now, I know from that description that I would not want those eyes looking anywhere near me. She continues about the room, turning particular care onto the image of Christ and the twelve apostles. She goes about, describing some in detail and others not, as the light flickers in and away from their faces, describing Judas’s face in particular as “[growing] out of the panel and seemed gathering life and threatening a revelation of the arch-traitor — of Satan himself — in his subordinate’s form”. Now, I highly doubt that Judas is literally about to jump out and get her, but the thing making noise in the next room just might. She is terrified, and so we the audience are also terrified. It is very effective.
I really enjoy how Charlotte uses the gothic is to subtly undercut romantic ideals. For example: Rochester, the main male love interest, meets the heroine as he rides in on a horse. Pretty classic romance there, except that his entrance does not excite nor entice the ever wary Jane. Quite the opposite, in fact, as the first image she (and we) get is that of his dog — a great spectre of a beast that she at first mistakes as an evil spirit. When Rochester does appear shortly thereafter, it is his voice and not his appearance that reaches her first. Then the valiant steed proceeds to buck its rider onto the ground, breaking Rochester’s leg in the process. The scene up to this point is rather eerie — we don’t know what to make of Rochester or his hellhound, but we can assume that he holds some importance on account of his grandiose entrance. Then he hits the ground and the spell is immediately broken. The scene thereafter is actually pretty mundane: the conversation they have is based firmly at the task at hand, although the manner in which he speaks to Jane is very telling of his character. This pretty much sums up Rochester’s interactions with Jane — equal parts mysterious and mundane. The fact that he can so seamlessly transition between normal and near psychotic behavior so quickly and easily left me uneasy, and I have spent much of the novel wondering if Rochester was going to pull a page out of The Shining and attempt to hack our heroine to bits for discovering his secret in the attic. I know he won’t, simply because Jane must still be alive to write this ‘autobiography’ later in life, but the idea still leaves my stomach turning every time he enters the scene.

The (Death) of Charlotte Bronte

"The Brontë Sisters by Patrick Branwell Brontë restored" by Patrick Branwell Brontë (died 1848) - Digitally restored from National Portrait Gallery: NPG 1725. Licensed under Creative Commons. The restoration of the painting reveals that Branwell had originally painted himself between Emily and Charlotte, and later removed the self-portrait.

“The Brontë Sisters by Patrick Branwell Brontë restored” by Patrick Branwell Brontë (died 1848) – Digitally restored from National Portrait Gallery: NPG 1725. Licensed under Creative Commons. The restoration of the painting reveals that Branwell had originally painted himself between Emily and Charlotte, and later removed the self-portrait.

For being entitled The Life of Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography devotes a large amount of the story to narratives of death: first Mrs. Brontë, then Maria and Elizabeth, Branwell, Emily, Anne, Tabby, and, finally, Charlotte herself. In an age of nascent medical science, poor hygiene, and rampant, fatal communicable diseases, death was a fact of life for the Victorians; yet it was not without deep emotional significance. Gaskell’s accounts of the deaths of Branwell, Emily, Anne, and Charlotte all share striking commonalities. What defines these death narratives, and what do they tell us about Victorian culture?

During his life, Branwell becomes “dissipated,” buried in debts, and hopelessly addicted to opium. For years, his struggles with addiction afflict the sisters and their father, as they struggle to keep Branwell out of trouble and away from harming himself or others: “… he [Branwell] would sometimes declare that either he or his father should be dead before morning…The sisters often listened for the report of a pistol in the dead of the night, till watchful eye and hearkening ear grew heavy and dull with the perpetual strain upon their nerves” (Gaskell 227). Yet despite his behavior and his addiction-related mental illness, death reveals the noble character that he still possessed. Gaskell writes, “I have heard from one who attended Branwell in his last illness, that he resolved on standing up to die. He had repeatedly said, that as long as there was life there was strength of will to do what it chose” (Gaskell 289). Gaskell’s narrative reveals a strong belief that one’s true character emerges at the moment of death. In his last moments, Branwell becomes a hero: resolved, courageous, and ready to face whatever might come next.

Emily’s death account shows a similar heroism in the face of fate. For the females of Gaskell’s narrative, the defining theme is independence until the final breath and the avoidance of burdening others: “She made no complaint; she would not endure questioning; she rejected sympathy and help” (Gaskell 290). Outwardly, she denied her illness and refused to see a doctor until it was too late. Though it seems foolish, Emily’s refusal to see a doctor probably did not hasten her death, given the unreliable nature of medical treatment.

Like Emily, the sense of hopelessness pervades Anne’s attitude towards medicine; however, though she knows her death is inevitable, “she was too unselfish to refuse trying means from which, if she herself had little hope of benefit, her friends might hereafter derive a mournful satisfaction” (304). Anne also tries to burden the healthy as little as possible; she was “the patientest, gentlest invalid that could be,” and “dependence and helplessness were ever with her a far sorer trial than hard, racking pain” (307).

Charlotte’s own death is born in the same kind of tragic courage against an inevitable human fate. Her illness is “still borne on in patient trust” even though she takes “stimulants” for her pain and departs in “low wandering delirium” (455). Her reflections on her sisters’ death are telling when compared to her last words. When Emily and Anne die, she warns herself, “These things make one feel, as well as know, that this world is not our abiding-place. We should not knit human ties too close, or clasp human affections too fondly. They must leave us, or we must leave them, one day” (Gaskell 290). Yet on her deathbed, she whispers to her husband, “I am not going to die, am I? He [God] will not separate us, we have been so happy” (455). As it is impossible not to be human, it is impossible for Charlotte not to love.

The tragedy of death in the Victorian culture, and the need for a “good death” narrative to console the living, reveal a society wrestling to define a concrete belief in the afterlife. In Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture, Deborah Lutz writes that “intermingled with this need to hold onto the memory of the beloved was an anxiety that this matter might finally signify nothing and that death was simply meaningless annihilation. Unfolding this dialectic of doubt and its function in Victorian death culture leads to the evangelical ‘good death’…” (10). Lutz goes on to explain that the life and significance of the Brontes were preserved through relics. Gaskell’s death-surrounded biography led to the late Victorians’ sanctification and enshrinement of the Brontes’ parsonage, along with items touched by the deceased– down to the couch where Emily is believed to have died, and the children’s scribblings on the walls, preserved under glass (52-53). Gaskell’s portrayal of the Brontes’ “good deaths” empowered her eulogizing rhetoric, creating the romanticized image of the Brontes that the living remember today.

Works Cited

Gaskell, Elizabeth. The Life of Charlotte Bronte. Ed. Angus Easson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Lutz, Deborah. Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture. West Nyack, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 2015. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 9 February 2015.