How is the London theme of power and powerlessness portrayed in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Katherine Mansfield’s Bliss and A Cup Of Tea?

Featured Image comes from the 1931 film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

The definition of what ‘power’ is could be explained in a number of entirely different but equally correct ways, depending upon who is asked. This is because language is in itself a flexible and changing entity which Fortier, summarising Fish, explains as where ‘there are no meanings inherent in works of art except those which ‘interpretive communities’ in any particular era foster or allow, while disallowing and discouraging others’ (2002: 135). Thus the noun ‘power’ could be, for example, interpreted simply in the physical, economic, social or legal sense, or as a complex interconnection of them all. Of these examples, Katherine Mansfield’s short stories Bliss and A Cup Of Tea, published in 1920 and 1923 respectively, offer a snapshot of the economic and social landscape of early twentieth century London which was dominated by patriarchy and gender inequality. While on the other hand, Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde could be focused on through the lens of physicality, Hyde being the stronger and more aggressive of the two personalities attempting to usurp control of the weaker Jekyll and become autonomous. This idea of strength versus weakness is also an allegory for the distinctive class divide at the time Stevenson was writing.

The inequality of power in Katherine Mansfield’s short stories is presented as being based upon socio-economic status within the domestic sphere. Early twentieth century Britain was a predominately patriarchal society, fathers and husbands taking on the protector role of the wife and children. While Mansfield’s stories are written from the middle class perspective they reflected that ‘By 1900 the male breadwinner working-class family had emerged de facto, and had established itself as the normative aspiration of the European working classes’ (Therborn, 2004: 24). Women were often viewed, in many respects, as inferior to their male counterparts and it is therefore noteworthy that at the end of A Cup of Tea Phillip uses the adjectives ‘little’ and ‘wasteful’ (2006: 332) to describe Rosemary. The use of ‘little’ can imply that she is physically smaller than him but also that this is her position of status in the relationship, by calling a grown woman ‘little’ it is suggested that Phillip views her in an almost child-like way, it is his role as patriarch to look after her, as Roper and Tosh explain, ‘to the rights and powers of the husband was added the authority of a father’ (1991: 55). Coupling this with idea that she is ‘wasteful’ for wanting to spend Phillip’s money on a trinket box, Mansfield conveys the social construct that as head of the household the husband that handles the money; it is not a woman’s place and they cannot be trusted with it. This small section highlights the influence that patriarchal ideology still held in early twentieth century society, a time with shifting opinions towards women and financial matters. It was only recently that it was women who were relied on to power the economy, in London’s Woolwich Arsenal female employment having rose from 125 to 28,000 during the First World War (Ackroyd, 2012: 531).

In a second short story by Mansfield, Bliss, highlights a social discourse which not only exists in the domestic sphere but within wider society in determining how women, in particular, should act. This discourse is perpetuated by a predominately patriarchal social structure, one which defines the certain manner in which women should act and if they do so otherwise they would be deemed, in Bertha’s words, ‘drunk and disorderly’ (2006: 69); making them powerless not to conform. It is therefore interesting that Bertha describes her feelings of ‘bliss’ using the verbs ‘run’, ‘bowl’, ‘throw’ and ‘catch’ (2006: 69), these language choices being typically playful and child-like suggest that Bertha wishes to behave in a childish and unorthodox manner for a grown woman. Much in the way Phillip refers to Rosemary in A Cup of Tea, Mansfield’s language choices convey the dichotomous notion that grown women are treated as children in society, even if it is not socially acceptable to act child-like. Evident across both Mansfield texts, this idea of treating women as children is a patriarchal social construct, one which places men in a position of power as it reaffirms the position, and consequently, the power of the patriarch. In essence, male-dominated society demands women to exist in a space between child-like compliance to the patriarchal father, and, exemplary feminine womanhood for the patriarchal husband.

Both texts being written and are set in patriarchal societies, Mansfield’s short stories predominantly exemplify gender inequality between men and women, notably the husband-wife dynamic. Stevenson, on the other hand, presents the dichotomy of power that exists between the two masculine personalities in his novella. In Stevenson’s descriptive language he refers to Hyde by the nouns ‘Juggernaut’ and ‘Satan’, his laugh is described using the adjective ‘savage’ while his physical movements are presented by the simile ‘ape-like’ (2003: 9, 10, 17, 22). On the other hand, Jekyll is presented using the positive adjectives ‘well-made’, ‘smooth faced’ and ‘handsome’ (2003: 19, 20); highlighting a clear disparity in their physical appearances. Stevenson’s language choices surround Hyde with a semantic field of power as he is, in summary, a negative and animalistic figure, one whom dominates a decidedly normal Jekyll in his bid to become more autonomous. As Early explains, ‘There is […] a disparity of energy that can be seen in comparing Jekyll to Hyde. The reader gets more the feeling of Job versus God rather than opposites at war’ (1983: 32). This idea of ‘Job versus God’ when referring to the two personalities could also be applied as a commentary to nineteenth century industrialism. Hyde representing the industrial workers who are physical entities in society, the ones whom powered an industrialist system which as the nineteenth century progressed fuelled most employment sectors in London. While Jekyll represents the middle and upper classes who come to rely on the workers labour and cannot function without it, even while they look down on them. The widening working class thus encroached itself upon the city and became a necessity, much in the way Hyde’s personality does to Jekyll in the novella. Furthermore, it is notable that in the first encounter that the reader has with Hyde is referred to as a ‘Juggernaut’ as the general definition of this term is of an overpowering and relentless destroying force. By using it as proper noun, rather than an adjective and therefore simply a trait of Hyde’s personality, it becomes a designation of his whole self; both physically and characteristically.

The opening paragraph of A Cup of Tea is predominately composed of a single complex, declarative sentence which asyndetically lists Rosemary’s positive traits: ‘She was young, brilliant, extremely modern, exquisitely well dressed, amazingly well read in the newest of new books, and her parties were the most delicious mixture of the really important people … and  artists…’ (2006: 332). The use of the adjectives ‘young’, ‘brilliant’ and ‘exquisitely’ with the adverbs ‘extremely’, ‘amazingly’ and the superlative adjective ‘most’ as pre-modifiers emphasises these traits, presenting Rosemary as a well-rounded and model woman. Coupling this introduction with third person narration Rosemary’s character is revealed to the reader by an impartial voice, removed from the action this voice has no personal association to the character and, therefore, a reader believes this description to be definitively true of her character. It is therefore almost shocking for a twenty first century reader that this clearly intelligent woman ends Mansfield’s story with the short interrogative ‘I am pretty?’ (2006: 338). This explicit question highlights how she must have her existence validated by her appearance and, in essence, her evident brilliance is undermined and reduced to valuing what will be appease the male gaze; Mansfield’s writing demonstrating the social constraints early twentieth century women were powerless to change under a patriarchal society. This notion of how women should be perceived, and perceive themselves, is ironic when domestic guides for wives were writing in the same decade as Mansfield: ‘Don’t be troubled because your husband is not an Adonis. Beauty is only skin deep and the cleverest men are rarely the handsomest, judged by ordinary standards’ (Ebbutt, 2007: 3).

It is established that patriarchal, or male-dominated, societies derive from a discourse of sexism, one that Kress explains ‘defines, describes and delimits how men and women must act in order to be considered masculine and feminine’ (Cranny-Francis, 1990: 2). This sexist discourse has often placed men in a position of power over women but it has also perpetuated a hierarchy within masculinity itself, whereby masculinity ‘is shaped in relation to men’s social power’ (Roper and Tosh, 1991: 2), with society emphasising value on certain types of masculintity as opposed to others. In Stevenson’s novella Hyde is the more physically powerful of two personalities and it this brute strength that has earned him, in popular culture, the position of the antagonistic character while Jekyll is the, weaker, protagonist figure. This notion of Hyde as the antagonistic, when explained in the context of Hyde being a representation of the industrial working classes, stems from a social discourse which was perpetuated by the upper and middle class men. As Anderson explains, ‘…men’s working spaces were cold, dangerous and hard places. Men moved rocks, welded iron, swung picks and operated steam giants. These environments necessitated that men be tough and unemotional.’ (Anderson, 2009: 25-26). Therefore, upper class masculinity looked down on men and their work that had been inaugurated by industrialism and, in effect, viewed working class males as uncultured, uncivilised, animalistic beings; a view that matched Stevenson’s aforementioned description of Hyde. This internal hierarchy highlights that while physical power wins out in a case of strength versus weakness such as Hyde becoming continually more dominate over Jekyll, it does not win out within wider society whereby the physical loses out to the intellectual. Hyde’s physical power casts him as the antagonist because that is the view perpetuated by a society that values Jekyll’s characteristics instead, a society simultaneously controlled by men with these characteristics themselves.

Final commentary can be discussed in relation to the social roles that women were placed in based on social norms and conventions. As it has been noted, twentieth century Britain was a predominately patriarchal society and the social roles of women were defined by this particular discourse, this being because ‘Patriarchy provided a way of drawing links between the different contexts in which men’s power operated: in the structure of ideas, relations and institutions’ (Roper and Tosh, 1991: 2-3). While gender relations in the working classes were unequal in part, both these men and women shared equality in their abject poverty, making their working lives somewhat more egalitarian. In the middle and upper classes, however, gender inequality was far greater as both genders were defined by expectations of conformity within the social constructs designated to their sex; both genders had roles to play in society which were non-negotiable. In Mansfield’s Bliss, she makes use of symbolic imagery to convey the presence and continued influence of patriarchal constructs: ‘…she seemed to see on her eyelids the lovely pear tree with its wide open blossoms as a symbol of her own life’ (2006: 73). The pear tree is a fitting choice as trees’ bearing fruit are often associated with fertility, therefore this symbolises the social convention that the female purpose is to be fertile; to marry and produce the next generation. When this is coupled with the phrase ‘a symbol of her own life’ the context in which patriarchal ideologies are prevalent in society is made far more evident. Bertha views a symbol of fertility, thus fertility itself, as ‘her own life’ suggesting that she feels her whole existence is validated by this social convention which she is inescapable from.

In conclusion, as it has been demonstrated there are many ways in which different types of power can be expressed, be it as socio-economic, physical or a complex interconnection of the two the notion of what ‘power’ is works in the same way;  the power of one group or persons over another. Socio-economic power is derived from a matrix of institutions, Mansfield’s short stories exemplifying how patriarchy influences gender constructs and inequality within the domestic sphere and wider society. While Stevenson’s writing explores elements of the physical disparity between the two personalities it is also a comment on socio-economic power within the hierarchy of masculinity, like Mansfield this highlights the constructs and societal norms that are inaugurated from the power of one group over another.



Ackroyd, P (2012) London The Concise Biography. London: Vintage.

Anderson, E. (2009) Inclusive Masculinity The Changing Nature of Masculinities. Abingdon: Routledge.

Cranny-Francis, A. (1990) Feminist Fiction. Cambridge: Polity Press.  

Early, E. (Spring 1983) ‘The Strange Case of Ego and Shadowman: A Review of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson’, The San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal, Vol. 4, No. 3.

Ebbutt, B. 2007. Don’ts for Wives. London: A&C Black Publishers Limited. (Originally

published in 1913)

Fish, S. (1980) Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Fortier, M. (2002) Theory/Theatre. 2nd edn. London: Routledge.

Kress, G. (1985) Linguistic processes in sociocultural practice. Victoria: Deakin University Press.

Mansfield, M. (2006) The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions.

Roper, M., Tosh, J. (1991) Manful Assertions Masculinities in Britain since 1800. London: Routledge.

Stevenson, R L. (2003) Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. London: W. W. Norton & Company. (Originally published in 1886)

Therborn, G. (2004) Between Sex and Power. London: Routledge.





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