In Jeff Green’s work on Pluto’s philosophies, Green states that ‘The potential for tension and conflict in [the] dual desires of the Soul can be equated with the basic psychological phenomenon of attraction and repulsion’ (Green 5-6). The dynamic of attraction and repulsion in representations of ‘the abnormal’ can be explored in both Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. In both of these texts, the principal characters experience clashing feelings of attraction and repulsion to what the reader would view as being ‘abnormal’.
For instance, in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Jekyll cannot help but feel intrigued by the exciting, dangerous life and character of Mr Hyde and in The Yellow Wallpaper the unnamed narrator1 similarly becomes fascinated by the figure she can see behind the wallpaper. It can be argued that both Jekyll and the Narrator feel attracted to ‘the abnormal’ whilst the people around them feel repulsed by it.
The Jekyll-Hyde dynamic in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde may represent the dual desires of the human soul.
Freud believed that the human mind is strongly influenced by thoughts and desires which we are not able to control and these impulses are often conveyed in our dreams. It is therefore possible to interpret the character of Hyde as Jekyll’s subconscious desire to be freed from his society’s restraints. This subconscious desire of Jekyll’s is viewed by the characters around him as deviant and revolting.
Although Jekyll also feels repulsed by Hyde’s grotesque and animalistic nature, he finds it impossible to curb his need to experience the life of a savage, uncivilised monster.
Similarly, the Narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper experiences a conflict of emotions towards the wallpaper. It is clear to see that the Narrator takes an instant disliking to the wallpaper when she says, ‘The colour is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow’ (Perkins Gilman 4). However, she soon becomes fixated with searching for hidden meanings in the wallpaper. She believes that she can see a woman in the wallpaper who is struggling to break free and this seems to reflect the Narrator’s desire for freedom from the constraints placed on her by her husband and doctor.
In The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde it is clear that Jekyll’s friends are repulsed by Mr Hyde from the outset. We can see this clearly in Enfield’s description of Hyde to Mr Utterson: ‘He is not easy to describe. There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something down-right 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. ‘ (Stevenson 12) Enfield states that although he detests the appearance and very being of Mr Hyde, he cannot articulate his reasons for feeling this way.
It seems to be an instinctive reaction to this creature which symbolises everything that the prototype of a man living in Victorian society would not approve of. Although Jekyll is at first strongly attracted to the concept of a dual personality and having the freedom to rebel against society with anonymity, he too is soon repulsed by Mr Hyde when he realises the extent of his alter-ego’s corrupt nature: ‘The powers of Hyde seem to have grown with the sickliness of Jekyll. And certainly the hate that now divided them was equal on each side. With Jekyll, it was a thing of vital instinct.
He had now seen the full deformity of that creature that shared with him the phenomena of consciousness, and was co-heir with him to death [… ] he thought of Hyde, for all his energy of life, as of something not only hellish but inorganic. ‘ (Stevenson 74) Similarly to Hyde’s powers growing ‘with the sickliness of Jekyll’ (Stevenson 74), as the Narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper continues to lose her sense of reality she too becomes more aware of her alter-ego, the woman she can see behind the wallpaper. However, she does not grow to hate this woman, but instead sees parallels between her own life of confinement and the female figure’s.
As the Narrator’s madness deepens and progresses, she begins to see more women behind the paper. All of them appear to be lost in the ‘torturing’ (Perkins Gilman 15) yellow pattern. With the appearance of more women, it seems that the Narrator now sees not only herself as being a victim of patriarchal standards of Victorian society, but in fact all women. Through her madness, the Narrator becomes repulsed by the restraints put upon women by society and instead becomes attracted to the abnormal idea of social rebellion. This echoes Jekyll’s initial rejection of ordinary Victorian life in favour of the adventures of Mr Hyde.
As Jekyll’s friends are repulsed by the appearance of Mr Hyde, the Narrator’s husband is repulsed by the concept of sexual equality. Instead, he is a firm believer of men having complete control over their wives’ lives. He treats the Narrator like a child, referring to her as a ‘little girl’ (Perkins Gilman 14) and choosing to place her in ‘the nursery at the top of the house’ (Perkins Gilman 4). John undermines the seriousness of his wife’s condition when he ‘assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with [her] but temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency’ (Perkins Gilman 1-2).
We can see that John ignores his wife’s suggestions for activities when the Narrator tells us that she has ‘a scheduled prescription for each hour in the day’ and that ‘John takes all care from [her]’ (Perkins Gilman 4). It is worth noting that the Narrator does not say that her husband ‘takes care of her’, but instead implies that he takes all control out of her hands. This proves that John thinks it natural for men to have power over women and it would therefore be possible to argue that men like John would have found the idea of the New Woman utterly abhorrent.
In The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, we can see Jekyll’s initial attraction to unleashing his subconscious needs in a letter he writes to Mr Utterson which explains the repression of his egotistical desires which society would frown upon: ‘The worst of my faults was a certain impatient gaiety of disposition, such as has made the happiness of many, but such as I found it hard to reconcile with my imperious desire to carry my head high, and wear a more than commonly grave countenance before the public. Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures [… I stood already committed to a profound duplicity of life. ‘ (Stevenson 60) When reading the text closely, it is possible to state that Stevenson suggests that within everyone’s personality there lies a Mr Hyde, a character full of cravings which are not influenced by social beliefs and standards but are instead primitive and innate. When Jekyll admits to having repressed and unsatisfied desires, his confession leads the reader to realise that everyone is forced to hide certain cravings in order to remain socially acceptable: Many a man would have even blazoned such irregularities as I was guilty of; but from the high views that I had set before me, I regarded and hid them with an almost morbid sense of shame’ (Stevenson 60). Jekyll’s feelings towards suppressed desires and attractions are resonated by Lanyon when he admits he has ‘since had reason to believe the cause [of his hatred of Mr Hyde] to lie much deeper in the nature of man’ (Stevenson 56).
Both Utterson and Enfield can be classed as exemplary Victorian male figures, yet Stevenson’s insinuation that there is a secret Hyde-like character within these two men can be detected from the opening of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The reader is told that Utterson ‘had an approved tolerance of others; sometimes wondering, almost with envy, at the high pressure of spirits involved in their misdeeds’ (Stevenson 7). Despite disapproving of anti-social behaviour, at times Utterson feels jealous of those with an ability to rebel against convention.
The reader can identify the Hyde-like aspect of Enfield’s personality when Hyde has ‘trampled’ (Stevenson 9) over a young girl. Enfield wonders how best to punish Mr Hyde for this offence when he says, ‘Killing being out of the question, we did the next best’ (Stevenson 10). It is possible to argue in that these men find Hyde repulsive because their subconscious mind is able to identify him instantly as the savage within. We could apply this theory of recognition in the subconscious to the character of John in The Yellow Wallpaper.
Perhaps his disdain at the Narrator’s behaviour is due to a similar part of his personality which he hides from others by using his position of power over his wife. It is also possible to argue that the Narrator’s initial hatred of the wallpaper is due to a subconscious recognition of the woman she sees behind it as sharing her suppressed wishes. The Narrator’s attraction to the wallpaper quickly turns into an obsession and as she descends into madness she becomes more conscious of her subconscious desire for freedom. On the surface the Narrator accepts her husband’s power over her.
However, at the end of the novel she appears to be taking her frustration caused by her husband out on the wallpaper. She claims that the pattern ‘slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples upon you’ (Perkins Gilman 16), suggesting that she is forced to study the wallpaper and, like Jekyll, cannot control her attraction. By the end of the novel, the Narrator’s fixation with the woman she can see behind the wallpaper has grown to the extent that she believes herself to have also been trapped behind it. We can see this when she exclaims, ‘I’ve got out at last [… And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back! ‘ (Perkins Gilman 26) For the Narrator, her ‘abnormal’ behaviour has given her a sense of freedom. Despite this, the frequent use of the word ‘creeping’ (Perkins Gilman 24) throughout The Yellow Wallpaper suggests a fear of being caught and also gives the impression of submission. This shows that even though her subconscious desires are becoming apparent to her, the pressures of society are still controlling the way she views them and she realises that her feminist ideals are taboo.
When John realises that his wife has undergone a stereotypically masculine task of destroying the wallpaper, he is instantly feminised by his overtly feminine reaction of fainting: ‘Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time! ‘ (Perkins Gilman 26) When John faints, the Narrator has at last gained power over her oppressive husband and the fact that she repetitively creeps over his body emphasises her new found authority. It also highlights John’s inability to control his wife who, though mad, is now mentally liberated.
Over all, it is possible to state that in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Yellow Wallpaper, ‘the abnormal’ was seen by Victorian society as a desire to rebel against traditional values. One could also argue that the dynamic of attraction and repulsion with regards to the ‘abnormal’ is a complex and contradictory matter as the conscious mind which is influenced by external sources often suppresses subconscious wishes. Jeff Green explains in his work entitled Pluto that people often ‘feel repelled’ by what they ‘feel attracted to, because the attraction may directly threaten the existing nature of their reality’ (Green 45).
At the end of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Jekyll explains in his final letter to Utterson his beliefs in the division of the human personality: ‘man is not truly one, but truly two. I say two, because the state of my own knowledge does not pass beyond that point [… ] It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both [… It was the curse of mankind that these incongruent faggots were thus bound together. ‘ (Stevenson 61) Jekyll realises that through his experiments he has created a monster and has lost control of his life as Henry Jekyll as we find out that the potion he has been using only worked due to an impurity in the original salt. As he writes to Utterson, he accepts his fate to become Hyde permanently and he wonders, ‘Will Hyde die upon the scaffold? Or will he find the courage to release himself at the last moment? ‘ (Stevenson 76). The tone of this concluding chapter of Stevenson’s novel is ominous with references to death and evil.
The conclusion of The Yellow Wallpaper contrasts greatly with Stevenson’s ending as it is playful and almost comic. As the Narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper loses her sanity, her writing becomes more coherent and she seems to have found a form of self expression in her journal. The Narrator has found freedom after her battle with the conflicting forces of repulsion and attraction with regards to the wallpaper whereas Jekyll is doomed to remain forever as the evil half of his character, a punishment for his tampering with nature.