The end of the nineteenth century was, like the end of the twentieth, a time filled with fear, anxiety and panic. All major issues in society at any time are generally represented in the literature of the time and this was certainly the case at the end of the nineteenth century. There were many reasons for anxiety; the collapse of empire, the rising Women’s emancipation movement and the rise of the theories of Darwin and Freud, amongst others. The primary anxiety at the time, in my opinion, was the fear of ‘perverse’ sexuality, be it the empowerment of women and the ‘decadent’, or homosexual man.

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson both illustrate this fin de sii??cle sexual anxiety to great effect, and it is on these two novels that I will concentrate. They approach these anxieties in different ways, and while Dorian shows the personal anxieties felt by the homosexual in fin de sii??cle England, Jekyll and Hyde exposes the anxieties felt towards the homosexual: As Showalter said, Jekyll and Hyde can be most convincingly read as a fable of fin de sii??cle panic aimed at the homosexual.

Before one can analyse the way in which these anxieties manifest themselves in these novels and others at the time one must first examine the cause for said anxieties, and look at the way that society as a whole reacted to them: Any analysis of the novels are almost meaningless without first considering their socio-political context. At the start of the nineties there was a great deal of concern about the slipping moral standards of the country as a whole and indeed that of the entire continent.

Best services for writing your paper according to Trustpilot

Premium Partner
From $18.00 per page
4,8 / 5
4,80
Writers Experience
4,80
Delivery
4,90
Support
4,70
Price
Recommended Service
From $13.90 per page
4,6 / 5
4,70
Writers Experience
4,70
Delivery
4,60
Support
4,60
Price
From $20.00 per page
4,5 / 5
4,80
Writers Experience
4,50
Delivery
4,40
Support
4,10
Price
* All Partners were chosen among 50+ writing services by our Customer Satisfaction Team

A great many people felt that something needed to be done to arrest this decline in standards and the decadents were one of their favoured targets. William Booth – who later went on to found the Salvation Army – described the state of the country in 1890 by comparison with the records of Dr Stanley’s famed journey through the Congo. He described London as a near impenetrable jungle, filled with savages and forsaken by God. “Talk about Dante’s hell, and all the horrors and cruelties of the torture chamber of the lost!

The man who walks with open eyes and with bleeding heart through the shambles of our civilisation needs no such fantastic images of the poet to teach him horror. Often and often, when I have seen the young and poor and the helpless go down before my eyes into the morass, trampled underfoot by beasts of prey in human shape that haunt these regions, it seemed as if God were no longer in His world, but that in His stead reigned a fiend, merciless as Hell, ruthless as the grave. ” Also of importance is the political context in which these two novels are found.

The most important event in the latter half of the nineteenth century in this respect was almost certainly the passing of the criminal law amendment act, 1885, and in particular the infamous Labouchi??re Amendment: “Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or is a party to the commission of, or procures, or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency shall be guilty of misdemeanour, and being convicted shall be liable at the discretion of the Court to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding two years, with or without hard labour.

The act also raised the age of consent for girls from thirteen to sixteen, made white slavery illegal and made abducting girls under the age of eighteen for immoral purposes a crime. The purpose of the act itself was not to outlaw homosexuality per se: This amendment was added mere hours before the bill was passed and was never debated in the House of Commons. It was rushed through late at night, by which time most MPs had retired.

It should also be noted that it was under this law under which Wilde was prosecuted an 1895 and given the maximum sentence after details of his relationship with Sir Alfred Douglas were publicised. The act was initially suggested in the summer of 1885, but was twice rejected by the Commons until an article entitled ‘Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’ was written and published by William Stead, the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette at the behest – it is said – of social reformer and Chamberlain of the City of London, Benjamin Scot.

The Chamberlain had been pushing for the passage of this bill for almost two years. This article exposed the seedy underworld of Victorian London, and in particular the exploitation of the working classes and young children by those higher up the social ladder. The booming trade in virgins, which had itself been fuelled by the syphilis epidemic that was also a major factor in late nineteenth century sexual relations and anxieties. The story was so shocking that WH Smith refused to carry that day’s edition of the Gazette. Despite this it still sold faster than in could be printed.

The Labouchi??re amendment was one of the most obvious signs of the sexual anxiety at the end of the nineteenth century. The causes of this anxiety are many-fold, and range from the sensationalist reporting of the likes of Stead – who were starting to realise that whipping the public into a frenzy was a very effective way of selling papers – to the very real dangers of syphilis, which had reached epidemic levels throughout much of western Europe by this time, and the fear of those in established positions of power of the rise of the New Women and the changes in society that their coming heralded.

Though this ‘New Journalism’ and the issues surrounding the rise of the New Woman are interesting in the general context of the late nineteenth century they are not particularly relevant to the two novels at hand, and they will not be dealt with them in depth here. The issue of syphilis, on the other hand, is a key issue in the social context of the two novels, not least because the main images of evil in the novels – Mr Hyde, from The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Dorian’s Portrait, from The Picture of Dorian Gray – can be interpreted as stylised images of syphilitic men, and this will hence be examined in greater detail.

The spread of Syphilis during the last twenty years of the nineteenth century was quite extraordinary: In 1880 there were five thousand new cases in Paris, but by 1902 Louis Pasteur estimated that there were approximately one million infectious syphilitics throughout France, and twenty percent of the male population was thought to be infected. Conservatives saw this as a plague sent from God to teach people the wrongs of straying from a chaste, monogamous life.

There are many parallels with the way that syphilitics were seen at the time and the attitudes of many during the 1980s towards the first wave of AIDS victims: The term WOGS (Wrath Of God Syndrome) was even coined for AIDS in the early nineteen eighties. Syphilis was, to quote Stephen Kern “An ideal Protestant disease as well as an ironically Victorian disease. One transgression [… ] could lead to a lifetime of suffering … none was deserving of cure.

The blame for this moral degradation of society that was seen to have led to this plague upon mankind was laid at the doors of the Decadents and of the swarms of prostitutes who were plying their trade throughout Europe at this time. The article by Stead caused such a public outcry from the newly empowered middle classes that the government was forced into rapid action, and Scot’s bill that had initially been proposed to deal with the epidemic, amongst other things, was passed with the addition of the ‘blackmailer’s charter’, as the Labouchi??re amendment was known.

It should be noted at this point that it was not until 1921 that an attempt was made to put men and women on an equal footing as regards this amendment, when Frederick Macquisten attempted to add a clause that would make any act of gross indecency between women a misdemeanour punishable on the same level as that between men. According to Macquisten the new clause was “long overdue in the criminal code of this country” and he referred to “an undercurrent of dreadful degradation, unchecked and uninterfered with. ”

Sir Ernest Wild, supporting the clause, declared it “an attempt to grapple with a very real evil. The clause was passed in the Commons on 4 August 1921, but was defeated in the Lords. An MP at the time was said to comment: “A clause of this kind would harm by introducing into the minds of perfectly innocent people the most revolting thoughts. ” It was against this background that Oscar Wilde initially released his first and only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, which deals with themes of homosexual attraction and Decadence in its most extreme form, and that Stevenson published The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which deals with homosexual themes in a less direct way and with the way that society deals with homosexuals.

It is understandable that these are two of the clearest pieces of literary evidence that we have for this anxiety. In fact, Dorian Gray, Doctor Jekyll and Edward Hyde have been referred to as three of the ‘four horsemen of the fin de sii??cle’ by a number of modern literary theorists, which stresses the magnitude of social upheaval that they have been seen to represent. The sexual themes in The Picture of Dorian Gray are quite explicit, for the end of the nineteenth century, and they can be split into three main categories.

Firstly, there is the affection that Basil – and to a certain extent Lord Henry – feels for Dorian; secondly there are the relations between Dorian and his ‘playthings’, be they male or female; finally there are the feelings that Lord Henry expresses towards women. Like the three characters, these three categories show us different parts of Wilde’s own character: As Showalter quotes, Basil is how he sees himself, Lord Henry is how the world sees him, and Dorian is how he wants to be.

There are a number of interactions that fall outside of these categories, with the most significant being the initial interactions between Dorian and Sybil Vane, who he seems, initially, to care for deeply. Although in the end she is cast away like all the other people who care for Dorian throughout the novel, but it is not without some remorse, as demonstrated by Dorian’s reaction when he hears the news of her death.

Basil’s feelings towards Dorian seem, initially, to be traditionally maternal – not paternal – as he seems to wish to indulge Dorian’s every whim, but also to protect him from the influence of Lord Henry, despite the fact that, he believes him to be a fundamentally good person. ‘I believe that you really are a very good husband, but that you are thoroughly ashamed of your own virtues. You are an extraordinary fellow. You never say a moral thing, but you never do a wrong thing. Your cynicism is simply a pose’ ‘Being natural is simply a pose, and the most irritating pose I know,’ cried Lord Henry, laughing.

The first time that we catch sight of Dorian the image is most definitely that of a young boy. He is bored, and described as ‘swinging round on the music-stool, in a wilful and petulant manner’, but Lord Henry immediately sees why “Basil Hallward worshipped him”. At this point, however, there seems to be no real anxiety but this soon changes when, after a number of nostalgic platitudes about returning to some ‘Hellenic ideal’ – itself a possible euphemism for homosexual feelings – and about the evils that come from resisting temptation and trying not to sin, he showers Dorian with complements.

Dorian is taken aback by this, and has no real idea how to deal with it. It is here that the true nature of Dorian and Lord Henry’s relationship is revealed, and the groundwork for all their future interactions is laid. As Dorian stands there and thinks over what Lord Henry has said to him, something stirs within him, and he takes on Lord Henry’s thoughts and suggestions as his own absorbing them into his psyche as if they had always been there.

The evidence that Basil’s feelings are of a romantic or sexual nature was watered down in the later versions of the novel, certainly in the earlier chapters, but the evidence of Basil’s growing obsession with Dorian is still clear to see, and this itself is evidence of the anxiety felt by Wilde and his publishers at the sensitivity of the subject with which they were dealing. This ceases to be the case, however, in chapter nine, as is evidenced by this speech by Basil, when Dorian is refusing to relinquish the painting for Basil to exhibit so fear that his secret may be discovered. … Dorian, from the moment I met you, [… ] I worshipped you. I grew jealous of everyone to whom you spoke. I wanted to have you all to myself. I was only happy when I was with you. [… ] Of course I never let you know anything about this. [… ] You would not have understood it. I hardly understood it myself. ” Though Basil is, in theory, talking about the ‘artistic ideal’ that Dorian represents, he seems to be expressing a deep romantic infatuation with him.

The shame that he feels regarding these feelings is evident in the fact that he was so reluctant to tell Dorian about them, and has only done since he believes that Dorian is either on the verge of working them out or has done so already. His hints at Dorian’s character in the following paragraphs are interesting, as he describes the characters from classical mythology that he has equated him with: Paris, whose abduction of Helen triggered the Trojan War and Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection.

These two characters are fundamentally selfish and self-obsessed, and the fact that Basil has chosen these subjects shows a deeper understanding of Dorian’s nature than he displays until the evening of his death. Dorian clearly sees what Basil means, and his words describing the love that Basil feels for him were re-used by Wilde, almost verbatim, in his own description of the ‘love that dare not speak it’s name’ during his own trial at the Old Bailey a number of years later on.

When Dorian’s fears of discovery are discussed in the novel with increasing frequency as he descends into paranoia towards the end of the book, they are almost always fears that his secret, rather than the painting, be discovered: though the meaning is the same there is a far greater generality to the first, and this is a possible allusion to fears surrounding his sexuality, although there are never more than fleeting references to Dorian’s own homosexual urges in the book.

He is said to frequent Bluegate Fields, and indeed keep a room there, for the purposes of procuring opium, and this was an area that was also know as a place where homosexual acts took place. It is also commented that Dorian has been seen ‘brawling with sailors’, which has its own sexual undertones. The Strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde has fewer sexual themes then The Picture of Dorian Gray, and sexuality seems at first glance to have very little to do with the story. In fact Jekyll and Hyde reveals more fin de sii??cle anxieties than Dorian Gray does, but in an oblique manner.

At the time that the books were published, as I have discussed, any sexual contact between men was banned, but there was such a taboo on the subject throughout society that the most explicit description of it in Wilde’s trial, ten years after Jekyll and Hyde was published was ‘unnatural love’, and it was simply referred to in many cases as ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ and unspeakable was a commonly used euphemism at the time for anything pertaining to homosexuality.

Bearing this in mind, the first time that Edward Hyde is described to us in detail the implications start to become clear: “He is not easy to describe. There was something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why [… ] He’s an extraordinary-looking man, and yet I really can name nothing out of the way. ” Later on in the first chapter the subject of blackmail is first raised.

As I commented earlier the Labouchi??re amendment was known as the blackmailers charter, and the very word blackmail has been tied with homosexuality for as long as the word has existed: it is only in recent times that the link has diminished. When Mr Utterson first suspects that Jekyll may be being blackmailed by Hyde his language is very suggestive of a past sexual digression with Hyde being described as some sort of disease:

“He was wild when he was young [… Ah, it must be that; the ghost of some old sin, the cancer of some concealed disgrace; punishment coming, pede claudo, years after memory has forgotten and self-love condoned the fault. ” When Jekyll talks about his own youth, as he does at the start of the final chapter, it can be seen that Mr Utterson may indeed have had a point: “And indeed the worst of my faults was a certain gaiety [… ] such as has made the happiness of many, but such as I found hard to reconcile with my imperious desire to carry my head high [… ]. Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures. ”

The implications in the above passage, are clear: there are very few vices that Dr Jekyll would have been as ashamed of, in society at this time, as any sort of homosexual activity in his past. He may have been ashamed of his past actions, and anxious that they not be found out lest he cease to be able to walk with his head high, as the respected Dr Jekyll, but they were still pleasures, and as we see towards the end of the chapter this is why he started spending time as Hyde: “Men have hired bravos to transact their crimes [… ] but I was the first that ever did so for his pleasures. ”

The nature of the duality is an interesting one as although Jekyll seems to be able to divorce himself from any responsibility for Hyde’s actions there are a number of points where the ‘Jekyll’ personality is described as inhabiting the ‘Hyde’ body. For example when ‘Jekyll’ wakes to find that he has transformed into Hyde, he panics as ‘Jekyll’, and he describes his time as Hyde as “wearing that form”. He also seems totally out of control at other points, drinking to excess, being cruel to small children, and, most notably, viciously beating Sir Danvers Carew to death in the most violent and shocking manner imaginable.

It seems that in the form of Edward Hyde Jekyll is finally able to rid himself of the fin de sii??cle anxiety that permeates the story and simply indulge his every whim, and is in fact incapable of doing anything but this while in this form. This, it would seem, is how various contemporary readers such as Oscar Wilde saw the story, as a “signing to the male community”, and felt that it came very close to the truth – allegorically – of their own double lives.

The near hysterical panic and uncontrolled anger of almost all those that cross Edward Hyde’s path, as he goes about seeking his forbidden pleasures, is one of the most obvious images of this allegory for the way that the homosexual was treated in Victorian Britain, and the panic which conservatives felt towards this wave of perversion that they saw sweeping the land before them, leaving nothing but syphilitics and ruined young men in its wake.

The view of Hyde as an allegory for a guiltless homosexual is further backed up by the fact that Jekyll feels totally comfortable with Hyde physically, feeling more youthful in this form, whereas all the physical descriptions that we have of Hyde, from the very first one above to the very last, are of a truly horrendous, deformed, beast of a man which spark nothing but rejection from those members of society who conform to it’s usual values.

As to whether he gets a better reception in the dens of Soho we do not know, but one would imagine that he does: it would have been very hard for Edward Hyde to indulge in such forbidden pleasures if he had elicited this reaction, to the same extent, from everybody. In the final chapter of Utterson’s narrative, when he is called to Jekyll’s house by Poole Hyde is described in a manner that would seem to befit a male hysteric, ‘weeping like woman or lost soul’ when described by Poole.

Hysteria was seen as a female affliction – as the name, derived from the Greek for womb, implies – and of the feminine aspects of the psyche, which were often seen as overly active in homosexuals by psychoanalysts of the time, who were just beginning to come to the forefront of the medical profession.

While Hyde may be free from guilt and consequences Henry Jekyll is not: like in Dorian the guilt becomes too much for the ‘uncorrupted’ half of the pair, and they attempt to destroy the other: in Dorian’s case he plunges the knife into the portrait, and kills himself by doing so, while Jekyll consumes poison in the form of Edward Hyde and kills both parties, but as in Dorian the corpse that is left behind bears the marks of the ‘dual’.

While both novels deal with anxieties that pertain primarily to male sexuality at the end of the nineteenth century they do so in different ways: The Picture of Dorian Gray seems to be Wilde’s way of dealing with his own dualities and anxieties, whereas The Strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, although it deals with issues of Stevenson’s own sexuality it has far more to do with the anxieties of society itself. Dorian Gray seemed to touch more of a nerve at the time, and was seen as containing a corrupting influence to parallel that of A Rebours in Dorian Gray.

However this stemmed from its seeming encouragement of the decadence and social decay that campaigners like Booth and Stead where trying to halt, rather than any of the anxiety that it portrays – as this was missed by most of its detractors at the time, as was Dorian’s final self-administered retribution. Jekyll and Hyde caused less outcry over its homosexual content due to the fact that it does not really deal with homosexual feelings directly, and certainly not from any sympathetic characters, but more with the reactions of society to Edward Hyde.

There is no implied glamour in the homosexual references either: it is in fact very difficult to find a character with less glamour than Edward Hyde throughout literature. There is also no real hint of any homoeroticism other than the fact that Jekyll, as Hyde, does enjoy the forbidden pleasures that he is trying so hard to hide. It is this complement of personal and public anxiety that defines the whole, as a public image of respectability and a private life of homosexuality and depravity defined the lives of so many at the time.

x

Hi!
I'm Niki!

Would you like to get a custom essay? How about receiving a customized one?

Check it out