Academic | Essay Contest
Matthew William Flamholtz
'The image is more than an idea. It is a vortex or cluster of fused ideas....' Perhaps Ezra Pound thought of writers like Robert Louis Stevenson when he penned these lines. In Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Stevenson proves his mastery of the art of imagery. He wields his skill like a champion fencer with a rapier, dazzling us with his talent. In turns, he seduces us, fills us with a sense of foreboding, foreshadows what is to come, horrifies us and substitutes his descriptions for action. With broad strokes, he paints pictures for us that vibrate with color and texture. At times, his scenes are straightforward and clear, but at other times they are multi-layered and complex with meanings that, on first reading, are as obscure as the fog of London.
'Perhaps one of the most compelling aspects of this novel,' writes Dan Chaon, in the 'Afterword' of the Signet Classics edition of the book, 'is that, in fact, there's so much left here for us to fill in, so many scenes we can only imagine' (129). In fact, Stevenson is quite often intentionally vague, allowing our fertile minds to conjure up possible scenarios. What Robert Louis Stevenson demonstrates so fully is that imagery doesn't happen on the printed page, but in the mind of the reader.
Little do we suspect, when we begin reading, that in the very first chapter, Stevenson is tipping us to the main theme of the entire novel. As the lawyer Mr. Utterson and his friend Mr. Enfield are taking a stroll, they come upon a 'dingy neighborhood,' with one section standing out from the rest. '(T)he shopfronts stood along that thoroughfare with an air of invitation, like rows of smiling saleswomen.' On this street, the 'inhabitants were all doing well...and...hoping to do better still.' The properties are well-maintained with 'freshly painted shutters, well polished brasses, and general cleanliness and gaiety of note' that 'pleased the eye of the passenger' (38-39). Like those inviting shopfronts, the fašade that Dr. Henry Jekyll presents to those who meet him is pleasing. He is a prosperous, well-dressed, respected doctor with a bright future. His broad circle of friends, mostly other professionals, enjoy his company. On the surface, he appears kind and charitable, and is known for his good works. He fits in well with Victorian society.
There is one building, however, that is a polar opposite of the others. 'Two doors from one corner' Utterson encounters a 'sinister block of building.' In contrast to the open friendly shops, here we have a two-story building with a 'discoloured wall,' lacking windows. It is not well-maintained, but bears 'in every feature, the marks of prolonged and sordid negligence.' There is a recessed door, 'blistered and distained,' which, 'for close to a generation' no one has bothered to repair. It might as well have a sign nailed on it saying 'Keep Out' for it is obvious that visitors are not welcome as the door has 'neither bell nor knocker.' The door gets little respect from those who loiter near it, for they gouge it with knives, slouch in its recesses and set up shop on its steps. Unlike the shopfronts which attract a steady stream of customers ('a thriving trade'), this door is a magnet for tramps, idle schoolboys and poor children (39). This is the entrance for Mr. Hyde, who leads a sinister, sordid, solitary existence. He is at home among society's lower classes. On the occasions when Hyde does encounter people, he often reacts violently. Yet, we must accept the fact that this sinister, secretive door lies within the pleasant neighborhood Utterson encounters. Like it or not, it is a part of that neighborhood and we cannot separate it from its surroundings. We shall discover, as we continue to read, that deep within the recesses of Dr. Henry Jekyll's pleasant persona, lies the menacing Mr. Hyde and the two will, ultimately, prove inseparable.
Stevenson again uses symbolism when he describes the rooms occupied by Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In chapter two, Mr. Utterson approaches Jekyll's door which exudes 'a great air of wealth and comfort' and is ushered into a flagstone-floored hall, with expensive oak cabinetry and a 'bright open fire.' So inviting is the hall that Utterson considers it 'the pleasantest room in London' (53).
It is not until the fifth chapter that we first glimpse the rooms that are the haunt of Mr. Hyde. Utterson crosses a derelict garden to get to the 'dingy windowless structure' that houses the 'laboratory or dissecting rooms.' He enters the dimly-lit theater, 'once crowded with eager students and now lying gaunt and silent...' Rather than being clean and neat, he finds the 'floor strewn with crates and littered with packing straw...' In contrast to the main house's welcoming hall, Utterson climbs stairs to arrive at the private room (cabinet) with its cheval glass and 'dusty windows barred with iron' (65-66).
Stevenson saves his in-depth description of this private room, indeed the whole building, for a later chapter, when we can fully appreciate its significance. We can now see the building as a whole, just as we shall soon see Jekyll and Hyde in their separate, yet united, context. The first floor includes not only the spacious theater, which houses the laboratory, but dark, dusty closets and a cobweb strewn cellar. Utterson discovers the corridor which links the theater and private office on the upper floor with the street. It is here that Mr. Hyde accesses the door described in the first chapter. Once again, Stevenson takes us into the cabinet, that inner-sanctum found behind the sturdy red baize door. His description mirrors the dual nature of the Jekyll/Hyde roles. On the one-hand, a cheery fire beckons and quiet lamplight illuminates the room. There are shelves of books, neatly stacked papers on a desk and a kettle singing. But it is not just a pleasant retreat. There are also tables filled with glazed presses of chemicals and, on one, he finds heaps of white powder on glass saucers. Utterson and Poole's attention is drawn to that mysterious, seemingly incongruous, cheval glass, in which the fire sparkles 'in a hundred repetitions along the glazed front of the presses...' And by the fire, next to a religious text, scribbled with blasphemies, lies the body of Mr. Hyde in the clothes of Dr. Jekyll (88-91).
While in the above instances, Stevenson has used his descriptions to symbolize his story, in other places he uses them to underscore and enhance the narrative. We don't have to be told that Hyde is in a panic after killing Mr. Danvers. Stevenson's description of his Soho rooms, which have been 'hurriedly ransacked,' underscores that loudly and clearly. Utterson observes that 'clothes lay about the floor, with their pockets inside out; lock-fast drawers stood open; and on the hearth there lay a pile of grey ashes, as though many papers had been burned' (63). Nor do we have to be told how frightened the servants are in Dr. Jekyll's house when Poole fetches Utterson because he suspects 'foul play.' When Utterson enters, he finds the hall 'brightly lighted up; the fire was built high; and about the hearth the whole of the servants, men and women, stood huddled together like a flock of sheep' (81).
While it is the plot of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that will linger in our memories long after we have finished the book, it is Stevenson's use of imagery that brings the story alive. His haunting descriptions allow him to keep the tale purposefully vague so that we must fill in our own images. We are left to conjure up our own unforgettable vision of Jekyll and Hyde and the world they inhabit.