Thursday, September 10, 2009

I See Homosexual People

Following Natalie's cue, I'm posting one of my school blogs here...this one also deals with reader expectations. You can read more at

In her book Sexual Anarchy, Elaine Showalter contends that Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr.Hyde is actually describing "the nearly hysterical terror of revealing forbidden emotions between men....a case study of male hysteria" (107). She goes on to further state her case, citing the use of the word "queer" (112) and the way the "male homosexual body is also represented in the narrative in a series of images suggestive of anality and anal intercourse" (113).

Showalter's assertions are interesting, and should remind us as writers that while we may think we are just spinning a simple tale of multiple personality disorder, our readers will bring their own ideas to the story. They may end up reading things we did not write, or may sense a subconscious subtext that, real or imagined, we did not intend to include. However, in this case it seems that Showalter may be over-reaching in her analysis of the story.

First, Showalter begins by suggesting that the author may have been gay. She writes that "Stevenson himself was the object of extraordinary passion on the part of other men" (107). While she does go on to say that "Stevenson's real sexuality is much less the issue in Jekyll and Hyde" (107), she implies that the book is a way for him to explore his own conflicted personality and most secret desires.

Using this logic, however, Stephen King is (or at least wants to be) a mass-murderer, Jennifer Cruisie has had sex with legions of men (doubtful), and Mark Twain was a racist. Likewise, even if the book is a discourse on homosexuality, it doesn't automatically follow that Stevenson was gay.

Showalter cites examples of the personification of homosexuality in Jekyll and Hyde--"Hyde travels in the 'chocolate-brown fog' that beats about the 'back-end of the evening'; while the streets he traverses are invariably 'muddy' and 'dark,' Jekyll's house, with its two entrances" (113) is, to Showalter, the most explicit example of a man's body.

I had never noticed these things before, but after the Showalter article I started seeing homosexual references everywhere. Stevenson writes "the stick with which the deed had been done...was...rare...wood" (34). When Utterson and Enfield encounter Dr. Jekyll at one point, they have a conversation where Utterson tells Jekyll "'You should be out whipping up the circulation like Mr. Enfield and me'" and Jekyll replies "'I should like to very much; but no, no, no, it is quite impossible; I dare not'" (Stevenson 52). Near the end, "where Jekyll perhaps might have succumbed, Hyde rose to the importance of the moment" (Stevenson 95).

It is interesting how a work of fiction may have many interpretations, and how, once exposed to a certain point of view, the reader may begin to see evidence supporting that particular interpretation. For example, some reviewers feel "the relationship between Jekyll and Hyde is also characterized as almost a father and son relationship, and reflects further ambivalence on Stevenson's part towards living in a house purchased for him by his father" (Danahay 129). At the time of its publication, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was "quoted widely in an example of the dangers of sin and vice" (Danahay 134).

So, is Stevenson's book rife with homosexual imagery? In an effort to study reader expectations, I picked a sampling of books from my own shelf and inspected them for passages that could be construed as relating to homosexuality or the human body. Here is what I found. Charlotte Bronte swings both ways in Jane Eyre. Early on the narrator says "to-night I was to be Miss Miller's bedfellow; she helped me to undress" (Bronte 42). Later, though, Jane's attention turns to "Mr. Brocklehurst, buttoned up in a surtout, and looking loner, narrower, and more rigid than ever" (Bronte 59).

Despite Dumbledore's predilections, J K Rowling mostly focuses on hetero (if somewhat underaged) desires. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, "Hermione grimly" tells Harry to "'Watch your frog, it's escaping'" (Rowling 374). Harry realizes too late that "he was indeed squeezing his bullfrog so tightly that its eyes were popping" (Rowling 375). However, there are a few homosexual images, as Hermione has "suspected this ever since Filch accused you of ordering Dungbombs" (Rowling 374).

Even Elmore Leonard can not resist including homosexual images in his writing. In Leonard's The Hot Kid we find this very revealing passage: "'Yeah, picking nuts. But he's always let me have my head'" (171).Obviously, these examples are very contrived and almost (or extremely) silly. However, they do prove that we as readers can inject almost any context we wish into a book, and then find the evidence to support our claims. It is important to look at ourselves and our own prejudices when we are examining writing. The danger of reading too much into a work is that we will be unable to convince others when we have valid points. For example, while Showalter probably has many good and interesting ideas, I will view any literary criticism of hers with suspicion in the future.

Works Cited

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Dover Thrift Edition. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications Inc., 2002. Print.

Danahay, Martin A. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. 2nd edition. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2005. Print.

Leonard, Elmore. The Hot Kid. Paperback. New York: Harper Collins, 2005. Print.

Rowling, J. K.. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Hardcover. New York: Scholastic Press, 2003. Print.

Showalter, Elaine. Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siecle. New York: Viking, 1990. Print.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Travels with a Donkey. Art-Type Edition. New York: Books, Inc., Unknown. Print.

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