Ferguson, Mr. Hyde, and the non-human

After reading Darren Wilson’s testimony, I, like many others, was struck by the dehumanizing language that Wilson used throughout. I also noticed some similarities to the opening scene of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which I teach most every semester. After a twitter conversation concerning these parallels, I sent some further thoughts along to David Perry, who then wrote a piece for The Conversation at the Chronicle. Also, see Karl Steel’s excellent writeup of how he addressed Ferguson in his class on medieval race.

In his #FergusonSyllabus piece, Perry writes:

I’m interested in language and power. Wilson uses the following words in his testimony, describing his perceptions of Brown. He calls him a “demon,” repeatedly emphasizes his size, compares himself to a “5-year-old” against “Hulk Hogan.” At one point, he uses “it” in a way that arguably refers to Brown. He claims that a third punch “could be fatal.” Throughout, he endows Brown with terrifying size, speed, and strength, charging, even after he had been shot the first time, unstoppable, superhuman.

In our twitter conversation, I was comparing these descriptions to the following scene:

All at once, I saw two figures: one a little man who was stumping along eastward at a good walk, and the other a girl of maybe eight or ten who was running as hard as she was able down a cross street. Well, sir, the two ran into one another naturally enough at the corner; and then came the horrible part of the thing; for the man trampled calmly over the child’s body and left her screaming on the ground. It sounds nothing to hear, but it was hellish to see. It wasn’t like a man; it was like some damned Juggernaut. I gave a view-halloa, took to my heels, collared my gentleman, and brought him back to where there was already quite a group about the screaming child. He was perfectly cool and made no resistance, but gave me one look, so ugly that it brought out the sweat on me like running. The people who had turned out were the girl’s own family; and pretty soon, the doctor, for whom she had been sent, put in his appearance. Well, the child was not much the worse, more frightened, according to the Sawbones; and there you might have supposed would be an end to it. But there was one curious circumstance. I had taken a loathing to my gentleman at first sight. So had the child’s family, which was only natural. But the doctor’s case was what struck me. He was the usual cut-and-dry apothecary, of no particular age and colour, with a strong Edinburgh accent, and about as emotional as a bagpipe. Well, sir, he was like the rest of us; every time he looked at my prisoner, I saw that Sawbones turn sick and white with the desire to kill him. I knew what was in his mind, just as he knew what was in mine; and killing being out of the question, we did the next best.

(What follows here is a slightly revised version of the original email I sent to Perry.) Here, the novella opens with a paranoid fever dream about the dangerousness of Victorian London. Mr. Hyde, described as a “damned Juggernaut” who “trampled calmly” a small girl in the dead of night, is set upon by an angry mob demanding his blood. Even the doctor wishes to kill Mr. Hyde. Every time I teach this text, I spend nearly an entire class session on the oddity of this opening scene. Why are there so many people out this late at night? Why does the mob seem so violent and then become so civil once Hyde agrees to pay their blackmail demands? Why would the mob treat Hyde so viciously? Yes, he knocks over girl, and this is certainly not a civilized action, but the response is entirely disproportionate to the event. That the mob becomes relatively civil and decidedly non-bloodthirsty once Hyde acquiesces to their demands makes all this even more suspect.

The absolute evil of Mr. Hyde is attested to by Dr. Jekyll and other characters, but none of these are necessarily reliable narrators, especially the good Doctor. On one hand, I suggest to my students that this could be evidence of something called the “bounce,” essentially a con game to ensnare hapless citizens. But more than that, we trace the language describing Mr. Hyde throughout the novella as being “hellish, “Satan,” “ape-like,” and “troglyditic.” He is also described as hirsute and not handsome, compared to the genial and soft features of the upper crust. Many of these terms–descriptions of hairiness and animality–were used in contemporary discourses that express anxiety and fear of the working underclass.  Frustratingly, the language of fear and anxiety concerning class difference hasn’t changed that much, and reading Jekyll and Hyde in 2014, it is difficult not to see how this language reflects racial panic as well. When I last taught this text in September, it was not long after the initial protests in Ferguson, and my class and I did note parallels to how some of the police officers referred to the protestors as animals.

Several months later, I can note that the language that the narrators of the novella used to describe Mr. Hyde bears a striking similarity to the language that Darren Wilson uses to describe Michael Brown. Both traffic in the language of the non-human, that is, the hulk, the demon. The “intense aggressive face” that Wilson describes Brown as having sounds like the “inexpressible deformity” that characters describe of Hyde. Finally, Mr. Enfield, the witness to the event with the girl, says to Mr. Utterson,

“There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why. He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point. He’s an extraordinary-looking man, and yet I really can name nothing out of the way. No, sir; I can make no hand of it; I can’t describe him. And it’s not want of memory; for I declare I can see him this moment.”

That Mr. Hyde is evil is too easy a reading of a novella that labors to show the fractured, complicated nature of all of us. The characters’ responses to his savage and Satanic bearing are perhaps less of a presentiment of his sci-fi origins and more an indictment on their own biased tendency to prejudge someone who looks different than they do.

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