Case Study in Steampunk: Jekyll and Hyde

So, when contemporary writers appropriate 19th-century fictional characters, what can we learn?  Here’s how we tackled that question in my UC Davis first-year seminar class on steampunk…

Last week, students read Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  That novella is almost the perfect length for introducing fantastic Victoriana to students in a shortened quarter once-a-week class.

This week, we covered Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s first volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.  While we were productively distracted looking up references on the LOEG collaborative annotation project led by Jess Nevins, we used Hyde as our first example of a character we’d encountered in original and appropriated form.

Sample discussion highlights:

  • Characters flourish when put in direct contrast with other characters.  Put Hyde on the same page as the Invisible Man or Captain Nemo and suddenly his decadence and violence seems tamer.  Again, that’s an idea more akin to TV’s SuperFriends or Marvel’s Avengers than in 19th-Century lit (and one only enabled by lapses in copyright).
  • Steampunk’s appropriation is nearly always critically engaged. Other characters, however, are completely inverted.  For example, “heroic” Alan Quartermain is a deviant Imperialist flunky from a contemporary perspective.  Hyde, in contrast, is atypical: he was a commentary on Victorian repression when Stevenson wrote him, and he is in Moore’s text, but…
  • Steampunk appropriation can lapse into presentist back-patting if we aren’t careful. Modern readers can see Hyde’s essence as purely a commentary on Victorian culture.  He couldn’t exist in our modern, enlightened, permissive society, right?  Right?? (I wish we could have pushed this one further.  Very “We ‘Other Victorians‘” no?)
  • One line can be enough to make readers believe your changes.  When LOEG’s Jekyll states that he “used to be taller” than Hyde, it’s a direct reference to the idea mentioned in Stevenson’s text.  As Hyde’s power grows, he gets bigger.
  • Because it’s a comic book, it’s referential to other comics.  Hyde and Hulk both have four letters and start with “H.”  Moore’s choice to make Hyde enormous, and Jekyll subject to transformation when he’s nervous are tips of the hat to 1960s comics, not 19th-century literature.

These concepts have all been noted elsewhere, but they’re good examples of where a 2 hours of class discussion on steampunk reading can lead.

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