Jekyll Gives Birth to Prufrock

Robert Louis Stevenson first published his short novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in the year 1885. Technically, Stevenson is considered part of the Victorian Era, the period of time between Romanticism and Modernism when Queen Victoria ruled England, a time in which the idea of propriety, manners, and position were increasingly important. However, “Victorian writing saw the seeds of rebellion against such idealized notions and stereotypical codes of conduct” (Kirschen). The seeds of rebellion, which made fertile the ground for the following modernist movement, came in the form of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. If there is any doubt of Stevenson’s modernist inclinations, one only needs to compare Jekyll with the foremost representation of the modernist movement – T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The similarity in description, setting, and character between the two leave no doubt Stevenson was a modernist before his time.

One of the most striking similarities between Jekyll and “Prufrock” is in the description. Industry, which began in earnest in the eighteenth century with inventions such as the steam engine and the Spinning Ginny, continued with a fury, changing the landscape of England. Farming communities gave way to urban communities as people flocked to the city to become laborers. “Mid-Victorian prosperity carried grim phenomena in its wake: there were bleak, sooty landscapes; exploited workers; crass materialism was rampant; and philistinism seemed to be the new buzzword which captured the essence of all this ‘progress’” (Kreis). One visual aide used in both Jekyll and Prufrock, which encapsulates this picture of industry, is the imagery of fog. There are multiple definitions for the word fog. Physically it is condensed water vapor lying low to the ground, an obscuring cloud of atmospheric dust or smoke, or a haze which conceals. There is also a mental reference as well in “a state of mental vagueness or bewilderment” (Meriam). Both Stevenson and Eliot use fog not only to describe the environmental consequences of industry but the mental distress it was beginning to have on man as well.

Stevenson uses fog to create an unsettling scene of darkness and secrecy in the reader’s mind, hinting at what is hidden, which is a reflection of modern man’s feeling of a growing darkness and uncertainty spilling forth. “A great chocolate-coloured pall lowered over heaven, but the wind was continually charging and routing these embattled vapours…for a moment, the fog would be quite broken up…the dismal quarter of Soho seen under these changing glimpses, with its muddy ways, and slatternly passengers, and its lamps, which had never been extinguished or had been kindled afresh to combat this mournful reinvasion of darkness, seemed, in the lawyer’s eyes, like a district of some city in a nightmare” (Stevenson). Embattled, broken, dismal, changing, muddy, slatternly, mournful, darkness, and nightmare are the descriptive words Stevenson uses in this one passage to pull the reader into this new world which would be coined modern not long after.

The same nightmarish quality is seen in Prufrock forty years later, after the destruction and horror of World War One which would be the impetus to launch people into a steady state of anxiety and alienation, “The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes / The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes / Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening / Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains / Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys / Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap / And seeing that it was a soft October night / Curled once about the house, and fell asleep” (“Love Song” III. 15-22). Though the fog acts as a metaphor for the pollution of the modern, industrialized world, Eliot also uses it as a metaphor for the mental state man has found himself in, as if a fog or haze has descended on his reality.

While the use of the same imagery, as is seen in the description of the fog, is an important correlation between Stevenson and Eliot, the setting also ties the two works together. Both Stevenson and Eliot use the urban city of London as their setting. In one regard, the reader is given a surface view pleasing to the mind, “The street was small and what is called quiet, but it drove a thriving trade on the weekdays…the shop fronts stood along that thoroughfare with an air of invitation, like rows of smiling saleswomen…and with its freshly painted shutters, well-polished brasses, and general cleanliness and gaiety of note, instantly caught and pleased the eye of the passenger” (Stevenson). This superficial view of life, of a proper society filled with citizens conducting themselves appropriately, achieving success and prospering, was important until it came into serious question during the modern era and discarded altogether in the post-modern era. As a true modernist who is beginning to see the edges of his socially-constructed world fray, Stevenson questions one version of society by illuminating the opposite version of society, “a certain sinister block of building thrust forward its gable on the street. It was two storeys high; showed no window, nothing but a door on the lower storey and a blind forehead of discoloured wall on the upper; and bore in every feature, the marks of prolonged and sordid negligence. The door, which was equipped with neither bell nor knocker, was blistered and distained. Tramps slouched into the recess and struck matches on the panels; children kept shop upon the steps; the schoolboy had tried his knife on the mouldings; and for close on a generation, no one had appeared to drive away these random visitors or to repair their ravages” (Stevenson).

Eliot attempts to reconcile the two realities as well. He speaks of one reality with “the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets / after the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor” (“Love Song” XIV. 99-103). This reality can hardly be considered concrete when set against the following, “Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets / The muttering retreats / Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels / And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells / Streets that follow like a tedious argument / Of insidious intent (“Love Song” I. 4-9). It is the battle between these two contradicting realities, one filled with tea and marmalade and talk of Michelangelo while the other is filled with cheap hotels, saw dust floors and insidious intent, which defines them both as modern.

Aside from the descriptive aspect and the similar settings, the most powerful correlation is that of character and theme. One of modernisms major themes is of man feeling alienated, consumed with anxiety that is overwhelming to the point of impotence. Stevenson’s Jekyll and Eliot’s Prufrock both embody those qualities. Jekyll battles with conflicting aspects of his inner self. In one respect, he is a well-respected, highly-regarded Doctor. He fits the Victorian mold of manners and respectability but below the “fog” there lies another hidden part of him, one that revels in drinking and debauchery and lust – all of the things society frowns on. It is a more primal side of his personality and the two conflict with each other causing Jekyll to be overcome with angst. Prufrock also seems to be a respectable member of society with his morning coat and a rich and modest tie “asserted by a simple pin” with “collar mounting firmly to the chin” (“Love Song” VI. 42-43). But like Jekyll, Prufrock battles an inner desire, “And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully / Smoothed by long fingers / Asleep . . . tired . . . or it malingers / Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me / Should I, after tea and cakes and ices /Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?” (“Love Song” XII. 75-80). Though Jekyll and Prufrock both are battling the duality of their personalities, the difference between the two is that Jekyll attempts to resolve his inner conflict while Prufrock remains impotent.

As Jekyll battles with conflicting aspects of his inner self, “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; and from an early date, even before the course of my scientific discoveries had begun to suggest the most naked possibility of such a miracle, I had learned to dwell with pleasure, as a beloved daydream, on the thought of the separation of these elements” he seeks out an elixir that will allow him to separate the more noble and socially accepted side of his character from the baser side. This results in him becoming not only alienated from himself but from society as well. Instead of a reconciliation, he has divided himself and as result one part must die so that the other can live.

While Prufrock suffers from the same internal battle, perhaps it is his deep seated insecurity that prevents him in taking action as Jekyll did. Prufrock is so immersed in his vision and revision and his hundred indecisions he remains trapped within his own head (“Love Song” V. 32-33). In the end, his disabling anxiety prevents him from claiming any part of himself thus being a whole version and a part of society as well. As a result he dies over and over again, “We have lingered in the chambers of the sea / By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed / red and brown / Till human voices wake us, and we drown” (“Love Song” XX. 129-131).

While T.S. Eliot might be considered one of the most influential modernist poets in history, there was another who came before who explored modern themes. Robert Louis Stevenson broke new ground with The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde exploring such modern themes as man’s duality and inner consciousness and alienation. Both Stevenson and Eliot use similar description, setting, and character to reflect the inner turmoil of the Victorian sensibility and the evolving modern mentality. Though Stevenson does not belong to the modernist period, his story of Jekyll seems to mirror that of Eliot’s Prufrock. There is a battle in both story and poem, both Jekyll and Prufrock, between conflicting sides of their inner selves resulting in death for Jekyll and an infinite alienation for Prufrock.


Works Cited

Eliot. T.S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. Baym, Nina, ed. The Norton Anthology American Literature Volume C. Crawfordsville: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. Print.

Kreis, Steven. “Lecture 25: The Age of Ideologies (3): The World of Auguste Comte.” The History Guide.  2012 Web. 31 July 2016.

Stevenson, Robert. Stevenson, Robert Louis. Project Gutenberg EBook #E-43: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. 26 Nov 2012. David Widger. Web. 30 Jun 2016.

Kirschen, Robert. “The Victorian Period.” UNLV. 28 October 2011. Web. 31 July 2016.


Categories: Essays

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