Mese: marzo 2013

Lombroso and Stevenson

In an early review of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Andrew Lang noted the most striking feature of Robert Louis Stevenson‘s tale. “His heroes (surely this is original) are all successful middle-aged professional men,” he wrote.(1) Indeed, one could hardly miss the novel’s foregrounding of the stature enjoyed by “Henry Jekyll, M.D., D.C.L., LL.D., F.R.S., etc.”(2) In Lang’s view this interest in professional men defined Stevenson’s novel at least as much as its portrayal of the grotesque Edward Hyde. If Jekyll and Hyde articulates in Gothic fiction’s exaggerated tones late-Victorian anxieties concerning degeneration, devolution, and “criminal man,” it invariably situates those concerns in relation to the practices and discourses of lawyers like Gabriel Utterson, doctors like Henry Jekyll and Hastie Lanyon, or even “well-known men about town” (29) like Richard Enfield. The novel in fact asks us to do more than simply register the all-too-apparent marks of Edward Hyde’s “degeneracy.” It compels us also to examine how those marks come to signify in the first place. As Stevenson understood, one thing professional men tend to be good at is close reading. Another is seeing to it that their interpretations have consequences in the real world. Jekyll and Hyde proves to be an uncannily self-conscious exploration of the relation between professional interpretation and the construction of criminal deviance. The novel is also, I will argue, a displaced meditation on what Stevenson considered the decline of authorship into “professionalism.”

The Atavist and the Professional

In Edward Hyde, Stevenson’s first readers could easily discern the lineaments of Cesare Lombroso’s atavistic criminal. Lombroso, in one of degeneration theory’s defining moments, had “discovered” that criminals were throwbacks to humanity’s savage past. While contemplating the skull of the notorious Italian bandit Vilella, Lombroso suddenly saw history open up before him, illumined as if by lightning.

This was not merely an idea [he wrote later], but a revelation. At the sight of that skull, I seemed to see all of a sudden, lighted up as a vast plain under a flaming sky, the problem of the nature of the criminal – an atavistic being who reproduces in his person the ferocious instincts of primitive humanity and the inferior animals.(3)

“Thus were explained anatomically,” Lombroso continues, such diverse attributes as the “enormous jaws, high cheek bones, prominent superciliary arches, solitary lines in the palms, extreme size of the orbits, [and] handle-shaped ears” of the criminal, as well as various moral deformities like the propensity for “excessive idleness, love of orgies, and the irresponsible craving of evil for its own sake.” These features were all signs of a form of primitive existence which normal men and women had transcended but which the criminal was condemned to relive. In his physiognomy as in his psyche, the criminal bore the traces of humanity’s history and development.

From the first publication of Stevenson’s novel, readers have noted the similarities between Lombroso’s criminal and the atavistic Mr. Hyde.(4) Less often noted is how snugly descriptions of criminal deviance fit with longstanding discourses of class in Great Britain. Lombroso’s work first reached a wide audience in England thanks to Havelock Ellis’s The Criminal (1891); the combined influence of Ellis and Lombroso was in part due to the ease with which the new “scientific” categories mapped onto older, more familiar accounts of the urban poor from Mayhew onward. Lombroso’s theory was in part a discourse on class, and much of its “legitimacy” derived from the way it reproduced the class ideologies of the bourgeoisie. Equating the criminal with atavism, and both with the lower classes, was a familiar gesture by the 1880s, as was the claim that deviance expressed itself most markedly through physical deformity.(5) Stevenson’s middle-class readers would have had as little trouble deciphering the features of the “abnormal and misbegotten” Hyde, his “body an imprint of deformity and decay,” as Stevenson’s middle-class characters do (78, 84). “God bless me,” exclaims Utterson, “the man seems hardly human. Something troglodytic, shall we say? . . . or is it the mere radiance of a foul soul that thus transpires through, and transfigures, its clay continent?” (40). Utterson’s remark, moreover, nicely demonstrates how old and new paradigms can overlap. He at once draws on familiar Christian imagery – Hyde’s foul soul transfiguring its clay continent – and a Lombrosan vocabulary of atavism, with Hyde-as-troglodyte reproducing in his person the infancy of the human species.

In considering degenerationism as a class discourse, however, we need to look up as well as down. Late-Victorian pathologists routinely argued that degeneration was as endemic to a decadent aristocracy as to a troglodytic proletariat. And, indeed, Hyde can be read as a figure of leisured dissipation. While his impulsiveness and savagery, his violent temper, and his appearance all mark Hyde as lower class and atavistic, his vices are clearly those of a monied gentleman. This aspect of Hyde’s portrayal has gone largely unnoticed by later critics, but for Stevenson’s contemporaries the conflation of upper and lower classes into a single figure of degeneracy would not have seemed unusual. Lombroso’s criminal may have been primitive in appearance, but his moral shortcomings – “excessive idleness, love of orgies, the irresponsible craving of evil” – make him a companion of Jean Floressas des Esseintes and Dorian Gray, not Vilella. In his highly influential Degeneration (1895), Max Nordau took pains to insist that the degenerate population “consists chiefly of rich educated people” who, with too much time and means at their disposal, succumb to decadence and depravity.(6)

Lombroso and Nordau have in mind not only the titled aristocracy but also a stratum of cultured aesthetes considered dangerously subversive of conventional morality. That Stevenson meant us to place Hyde among their number is suggested by the description of his surprisingly well-appointed Soho rooms, “furnished with luxury and good taste” (49). Hyde’s palate for wine is discriminating, his plate is of silver, his “napery elegant.” Art adorns his walls, while carpets “of many plies and aggreeable in colour” cover his floors. This is not a savage’s den but the retreat of a cultivated gentleman. Utterson supposes that Jekyll bought the art for Hyde (49), but Stevenson in a letter went out of his way to say that the lawyer is mistaken. The purchases were Hyde’s alone.(7)

In Edward Hyde, then, Stevenson created a figure who embodies a bourgeois readership’s worst fears about both a marauding and immoral underclass and a dissipated and immoral leisure class. Yet Stevenson also shows how such figures are not so much “recognized” as created by middle-class discourse. He does this by foregrounding the interpretive acts by means of which his characters situate and define Hyde. Despite the confident assertions of the novel’s professional men that Hyde is “degenerate,” his “stigmata” turn out to be troublingly difficult to specify. In fact, no one can accurately describe him. “He must be deformed somewhere,” asserts Enfield. “He gives a strong feeling of deformity, though I couldn’t specify the point. He’s an extraordinary-looking man, and yet I really can name nothing out of the way. No, sir . . . I can’t describe him” (34). Enfield’s puzzled response finds its counterparts in the nearly identical statements of Utterson (40), Poole (68), and Lanyon (77-78). In Utterson’s dream Hyde “had no face, or one that baffled him and melted before his eyes” (36-37). “The few who could describe him differed widely,” agreeing only that some “unexpressed deformity” lurked in his countenance (50). That last, nearly oxymoronic formulation – unexpressed deformity – nicely captures the troubled relation between the “text” of Hyde’s body and the interpretive practices used to decipher it. Hyde’s stigmata are everywhere asserted and nowhere named. In this way Stevenson underscores how the act of interpretation is grounded less in empirical data (the shape of Hyde’s face, the hue of his skin) than in the categories brought to bear upon him. The novel continually turns the question of Hyde back on his interlocutors so that their interpretive procedures become the object of our attention. “There is my explanation,” Utterson claims. “It is plain and natural, hangs well together and delivers us from all exorbitant alarms” (66). It is also, we are immediately given to understand, wrong, though its delusions differ only in degree from other “plain and natural” explanations brought forward in the tale.