Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf must have been very shocking to her readers when it first appeared. It discusses both the pain that a mismatch in sexual desire between a husband and a wife can create, and the power of a crush of one woman for another. While it discusses these matters very poetically and with magnificent imagery, the agony of the protagonist is clear. Additionally, the text shows just how constricting and stifling the life that she leads can be.
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For a modern reader, it is tempting to imagine that in having a crush on Sally, she was just discovering her true proclivities. However, consider the era in which this was written. For the most part, women’s sexual potential was just barely acknowledged or dismissed entirely.
It is also possible that she has never experienced a man’s love in a way that would be tolerable. How knowledgeable, how tender, was the way that she was approached as a wife? Was she ever kissed for no reason at all, as her female friend kissed her? It is an interesting issue.
Throughout the text, the reader is reminded repeatedly of how limited a woman’s life was. That a woman’s status could be determined by her gloves and her shoes, tells the reader that a woman’s interior life was unimportant to the men around her. In Woolf’s text, a woman seems to have been seen as a decorative object for the most part. She was also, of course, a brood mare for the next generation, and a source of sexual outlet that was safer than a prostitute and less expensive and risky socially than a mistress.
This is powerful stuff. It is seductively beautiful and vivid in the pictures it paints of London in a certain era and a certain upper class neighborhood. It is also highly evocative of the complicated feelings that women can experience with regard to men, and to women, in their lives.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde presents an ancient conflict, in what, at the time, would have seemed to be a very fantastical manner. Using a framing story in a way that reminds the reader of Frankenstein, Robert Louis Stevenson offers the reader a chance to imagine the descent of a mind from intellectual healer to a beast of selfishness and uncontrolled desires. This is a very dramatic way of showing how human nature is multi-faceted and has negative aspects.
The war within each human being between what their best and their worst impulses is constant. It could be pointed to as the source of all the great religions, and probably of all law and civilization. Stevenson, in the voice of Jekyll himself, refers to the better impulses as “balancing instincts” (Stevenson).
These are the promptings of conscience and fellow feeling that, for example, prevent someone from battering an elderly person encountered on the street, as the Hyde identity does. The effects of the mysterious drugs that Jekyll discovers remind the modern reader of the horrifying way that some illicit substances today make their users behave. There are horrifying stories of people eating other people’s faces off, for example, and this sort of bestial action is very like what Hyde does.
This story is reminiscent of the tale of Frankenstein, because it uses a framing story to introduce what is actually the core of narrative. Stevenson uses Utterson to introduce us to Lanyon, and a letter from Lanyon to introduce Jekyll/Hyde’s own memoir in the form of another letter. Perhaps this is because it is so implausible otherwise.
Perhaps this supposed documentary evidence makes it more realistic. Perhaps it is the 19th century way of creating what readers today would categorize as speculative fiction. The story is also like the story of Frankenstein because it shows an individual who is missing some important parts of the human heart, mind, spirit, and/or formative memories.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” 1886. Gutenberg Project. 2013. Web.