Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A Bakhtinian Understanding of Robert Louis Stevenson’s: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde


I turned in a paper for class yesterday, which concerns Russian literary theorist Michael Bakhtin and Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and I figured: "What the heck? I may as well post it here for anyone who might be interested in it. . ."


Literary and Cultural Interpretation

Prof. Larry Shillock

Assignment 1

Student: Alex MacDonald


A Bakhtinian Understanding of Robert Louis Stevenson's: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde


Thesis statement: Russian literary theorist Michael Bakhtin theorizes that all speech acts, which he calls "utterances", anticipate a response on the part of an active listener.

Three main points to follow: 1) Stevenson's novella, as a whole, is a Bakhtinian utterance of the complex, secondary speech genre; 2) Stevenson's novella, as a whole, elicits a powerful Bakhtinian response from an active Bakhtinian listener; 3) Stevenson's use of Dr. Lanyon's letter, which is of the simple, primary speech genre, ends the narrator's Bakhtinian utterance and becomes caught-up into "actual reality" by being incorporated into the utterance that is the novella—the epitome, according to Bakhtin, of the living, complex, sociologically oriented, secondary speech genre that is: the novel (or, in Stevenson's case: the novella).

Contrary to other linguists, who think of language as a system of signs, Bakhtin emphasizes the sociological nature of language. Theorizing that the spoken word is primary, Bakhtin denies neutrality to language and exposes all "speech acts" as being heavy-laden with sociological presuppositions, because all speakers are also active listeners who have been influenced by—and who are responding to—innumerable, prior, sociological utterances.

Bakhtin theorizes that these sociologically influenced, non-neutral speech acts always anticipate a response from an active listener. As for Bakhtin's concept of the utterance, Bakhtin tells us "The utterance is not a conventional unit [i.e., an abstract, sign-system, unit of speech], but a real unit, clearly delimited by the change of speaking subjects . . ." Bakhtin also tells us that, "Each separate utterance is individual . . . but each sphere [i.e., genre] in which language is used develops its own relatively stable types of these utterances. These we may call speech genres."

According to Bakhtin, there are two types of speech genres: the primary (i.e., the simple) and the secondary (i.e., the complex). For example, the primary speech genre consists of the simple utterances (e.g., words, phrases, and expressions) of everyday life; whereas the secondary speech genre consists of primary utterances which are shaped, according to the spheres in which they are to be used, into the more complex utterances (e.g., scientific treaties, commentaries, novels), which are necessary for complex, socially-oriented communications.

Bakhtin thinks of the novel as a unique genre, because of its living, dynamic, and sociologically oriented nature: "Studying other genres is analogous to studying dead languages, studying the novel, on the other hand, is like studying languages that are not only alive, but still young." Concerning primary and secondary speech genres, Bakhtin tells us "These primary genres are altered and assume a special character when they enter into complex ones . . . For example, rejoinders of everyday dialogue or letters found in a novel retain their form and their everyday significance only on the plane of the novel's content. They enter into actual reality only via the novel as a whole, that is, as a literary-artistic event and not as everyday life."

Bakhtin recognizes that the conventional approach to linguistics—with its emphases upon the abstract individual speaker and "the [abstract] function of thought [as] emerging independently of communication" —is lacking as a proper understanding of language. Instead, Bakhtin thinks of language as being—fundamentally—a sociological (i.e., communicative) phenomenon. In fact, Bakhtin stresses the importance of approaching language as a sociological phenomenon to such an extent that he refers to the abstract, conventional (speaker-centered) linguistic approach as a "science fiction".

Bakhtin's understanding of language, as a sociological and communicative endeavor, leads him to conclude that the speaker's utterance (his "speech act") will always elicit a response from an active listener: "When the listener perceives and understands the meaning (the language meaning) of speech, he simultaneously takes an active, responsive attitude toward it." This concept, of the speaker's utterance eliciting an active response on the part of the listener, coupled with Bakhtin's concept of the novel as a living, dynamic, and sociologically oriented utterance, or speech act, which consists of both primary and secondary speech genres that are brought together into a new and living whole, is a good critical theory to use in order to understand Stevenson's novella: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Any reader of Stevenson's novella (or complex utterance) will undoubtedly experience within themselves—not simply a response, but a very powerful response indeed. Stevenson's novella is a living, dynamic, and sociologically oriented utterance from beginning to end, which calls forth from the reader a powerful, emotional—even fearful—response. The reader senses that which the characters in the novella also sense: that there is something unmistakably evil about Mr. Hyde; although Mr. Hyde himself—in appearance only—is not so obviously evil (see p. 34). Although odd looking (e.g., troglodytic) Mr. Hyde appears to be an otherwise normal person; much as we think ourselves to be. The evil, which is perceived to exist within Mr. Hyde, is just that: evil within and not necessarily evil without. There is something one must experience—sense—by looking him in the face and looking him in the eye in order to perceive the evil which lies within this odd looking, but otherwise seemingly ordinary, man (see p. 40).

Mr. Hyde's actions, however, are most obviously evil; because when Mr. Hyde acts his actions resemble those of a cruel, vicious, ape-like, less evolved, primitive man (see p. 47). This strikes the reader of Stevenson's novella very close to home, because she knows, thanks to Charles Darwin, that she herself is the progeny of less evolved, ape-like, primitive ancestors. Perhaps there is something of a "Mr. Hyde" dwelling—lying dormant—within her? The response of the reader is to doubt—immediately—their own civilized humanity which—until reading Stevenson's novella—had seemed quite well assured; something which the reader had not really given much thought to. In fact, the reader has most likely presupposed themselves to be in possession of his civilized humanity until he found his presupposed notions about himself overtly challenged by Stevenson's powerful utterance.

Stevenson's novella—taken as a whole—elicits a powerful response of both uncertainty and fear within the reader, who cannot come away from the novella the person they were before having read it. The reader's thoughts about herself are altered and an active response elicited by the powerful, complex, living utterance that is: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Throughout most (i.e., pp. 1-74) of this novella (utterance), Stevenson uses the voice of a narrator in order to communicate his story to the reader. This changes—abruptly—when the speech suddenly becomes that of Dr. Lanyon, coming to the reader in the form of a letter, which is an utterance of the primary speech genre that has been placed within—and brought into "actual reality"—the utterance of the secondary speech genre that is the novella itself. The narrator's speech having ceased here now signifies the end of this utterance, and Dr. Lanyon's letter now become the start of yet another utterance.

The section titled Dr. Lanyon's Narrative (p. 74) comes to us (the readers) in the form of an utterance of the primary speech genre: a letter, which is written by Dr. Lanyon, and contains the most frightening revelation of the entire novella. And this utterance—this letter—is now caught-up into the greater utterance of the secondary, living speech genre that is the novella. Dr. Lanyon's letter, placed here within the novella, finds it Bakhtinian "actual reality" in becoming the very climax toward which Stevenson has been leading the reader all throughout this frightful story: that Dr. Jekyll is, in fact, Mr. Hyde.

Stevenson's novella is a perfect example of what Bakhtin tells us is really going on with language: Stevenson wrote his novella (in itself a complex utterance) in order to elicit a strong and powerful response from the active reader/listener. Stevenson's words are oriented, sociologically, toward future words—those of the reader/listener—as well toward creating, or causing, within the active reader/listener an inward—although not necessarily immediate—response.

Stevenson uses simple utterances of the primary speech genre (e.g., words, phrases, everyday expressions) in order to form a much more complex utterance, of the secondary speech genre (e.g., the novella) by which he elicits a powerful and active response from the active reader/listener: a real fear that there exists a "Mr. Hyde" within each and every one of us—a cruel, vicious, less evolved, ape-like, primitive creature that longs to escape from beneath our civilized facades.

I believe Bakhtin gives us a very accurate understanding of what's really going on with language: words are primarily spoken and sociologically oriented. Words always carry along with them the sociological influences of previously spoken words or "speech acts" which have always elicited and anticipated active responses. There is no neutrality in language, because all language is heavy-laden with innumerable, prior, sociological influences which have given rise to active responses on the parts of the listeners who, influences by these words, themselves become the speakers of yet more words and more utterances; of both the primary and the secondary speech genres. Language is not simply an abstract, speaker centered, system of signs; it's a living, dynamic, sociological phenomenon in which speakers anticipate active responses to their utterances and active listeners become active speakers.

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