Video appunto: Late victorian novel and Stevenson

The late victorian novel

In the second half of the 19th century, there was the birth of a new literary movement, Realism, based on Darwin’s theories of the influence of the natural environment on animals. So it studied the influence of the social environment on man and described reality with precise details (the failed characters, the poor settings…).
Realism was a reaction against the Victorian ideology and it didn’t diffuse the typical image of England as an imperial power.
Stevenson is the best write of horror and crime tradition; he wrote “The strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, a horror story with Gothic elements, that talks about the transformation of the respected Dr. Jekyll into the evil Mr. Hyde. An important theme is the study of the human nature: man is in part bad and science cannot separate good from bad. This aspect strikes at the core of the Victorian compromise.
Another important writer is Thomas Hardy, whose stories are set in countryside, in rural Wessex and are centred on love. He called these works “Novels of Characters and Environment” to indicate the two elements that shape man’s destiny.
The criticism to the Victorian standards culminated in the Aesthetic Movement, based on the idea of “Art for Art’s sake”; it came from the theory of the French writer Gautier: he thought that art shouldn’t have moral basis or purpose. The most important writer of Aestheticism is Oscar Wilde, who wrote “The picture of Dorian Gray”, the story of a young man who stays forever young, while his portrait becomes ugly, because of the corruption of his soul. The philosophy of the book is the cult of beautiful things and the indifference to moral and social issues.
In this period there were the first examples of colonial novels. In particular, Kipling started to write about India, its people and its landscapes and described the relations between British and Indians. He justified the British colonization in India because British had to bring civilization to a less developed country.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Stevenson was born in Edinburgh in 1850; he studied engineering and law in Edinburgh University, but he loved literature so he decided to become a writer. He als rebelled against his father’s Calvinistic religion and for a period he led a Bohemian life. In 1873, Stevenson went to French Riviera because of some health problems and then he went to California, where he married an American woman. In 1884, he returned to England for three years. He became famous thanks to an adventure novel “Treasure Island”; then he wrote “The strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, a short novel, that shows the interest for the ethical problems, raised by the scientific progress. He also wrote some Scottish stories. In 1888, he restarted to travel in the South Pacific: he visited Tahiti, Polynesia, Hawaii, Australia and Samoa: he tried to understand the customs of these places, where he became a legend. He died in 1894.

“The strange case of dr. Jekyll and mr.Hyde”

This novel was published in 1886 and the story shows the “double personality” theme and the problem of evil within man, expressed by the double life led by a positive figure like Dr. Jekyll. This strikes at the core of the Victorian compromise. The novel is interesting not only for the description of setting or for the language and dialogues, but in particular for the struggle between good and evil within man; these two forces cannot be separated, because their division may bring the destruction of the personality of man. So this novel shows a new awareness of the human mind, that came from the studies of psychoanalysis. The novel is characterized by a combination of realism and symbolism, expressed for example in the scene of Jekyll’s transformation into Hyde, written by Jekyll in his final letter, before he committed suicide. In this passage, symbolically, the tall, erect and virtuous Dr. Jekyll became the short and evil Mr. Hyde. Stevenson’s novel includes some typical features of a crime or mystery story: first of all, the different elements of the story are pulled together at the end of the novel by two characters (Mr. Lanyon and Dr. Jekyll); the title is evocative: the word “case” indicates both a detective story and a psychological case; the setting of a foggy and badly-lit London is frightening and the scattered clues lead to the solution of the story. Stevenson shows the same interest for language, plot and psychological realism. The structure of the novel is complex, but modern: there are three different narrators, that creates a shift of the narrative point of view (the third- person narrator who tells the story but he isn’t omniscient; Dr. Lanyon who writers his version of the story and Dr. Jekyll, who writes his confession in a letter at the end of the book).