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Dr Alistair Brown
Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Relativity and the Social Good: Jekyll and Hyde, The Voyage Out and Memoirs of a Survivor


The influence of scientific concepts of relativity on three novels (Jekyll and Hyde, The Voyage Out and Memoirs of a Survivor) is explored. In their own ways, these Victorian, modernist and postmodernist texts assert the value of entering into the literary experience as a way of temporarily escaping the ethical problems caused by the juxtaposition of relative, subjective perspectives of different individuals in the "real" world.


Ethical truths are not written into the fabric of the universe: to that extent the subjectivist is correct...on the other hand, once there are beings with desires, there are values that are not only the subjective values of each individual. (Peter Singer).

By denying the stability of regular scales of measurement even of the fundamental phenomenon of time, Einstein's concept of relativity may seem to challenge the possibility of absolute knowledge.1 However, this science provides coincidental affirmation for the human sense of time which rarely correlates with its empirical progression, a contrast recognised (and exploited) throughout literature, from the appearance of Time in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale to the "biographer" of Orlando noting the "extraordinary discrepancy between time on the clock and time in the mind."2 Rather than providing a radical trope initiating new philosophical interpretations, this most modern and dispassionate version of relativity actually vindicates the predictions of aesthetic practice. Whilst questioning the certainty of attaining empirical experiences of the world, relativity simultaneously confirms the value of creative literature as a medium in which absolute perspectives may be temporarily sustained and by which Peter Singer's deliberately ambiguous definition of "the good life" might be evaluated.3

Before Einstein, Walter Pater, one of a range of influential Victorian thinkers for whom the relative was a persuasive perspective, noted that:4

Modern thought is distinguished from ancient by its cultivation of the "relative" spirit in place of the "absolute"...The philosophical conception of the relative has been developed in modern times through the influence of the sciences of observation. Those sciences reveal types of life evanescing into each other by inexpressible refinements of change. Things pass into their opposites by accumulation of undefinable quantities.5

Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde draws on such ideas, literally embodying and describing the passing of things into their opposites.6 Most obviously, there is the personality split which structures the drama, but throughout the novel symbols of duality recur. The alternating ethical values of the Victorians are inscribed in London's geography and its architecture, such that "Blackmail House" has two entrances, both leading to Jekyll's residence (45). Tramps and knife-wielding children spill onto the street by its back door, a Hydian lower class accumulating parasitically around the respectable sphere of science. The fundamental, organising Victorian institutions - science, the law, the household - are pitted against the flickering potential of something monstrous within their disciplines: Lanyon, the doctor "flashes purple" in a "scientific passion" (19) when reminded of Jekyll, the conflicts of reasoned theory becoming subjectively passionate; Utterson is haunted by the "strange clauses of the will" (25), and he faces his own dichotomous drama as he is tempted to open the documents in his care (43); Jekyll's "own servants would consign me to the gallows" (83).

These are polar (or absolute) oppositions which pose the civilised norm against its immoral counterpart. Albeit when society is defined with the narrow parameters of the male middle- and upper-classes, the novel implies that, like the regulatory mechanism of the steam engine, the governor, society's moral values are encoded and enforced naturally through the feedback loops of a Newtonian universe in which every action has an equal and opposite, controlling reaction.7 Thus Jekyll brings "on myself a punishment and a danger that I cannot name" (42), revealing that "It was no longer the fear of the gallows, it was the horror of being Hyde that racked me" (85). As in the novel's obvious predecessor, Frankenstein, as well as in the later The Island of Dr. Moreau, there is a Promethean symmetry in which the individual is punishment by his own creation, without the need for, and even outside the reach of, the objective judgements passed down by law.8

However, whilst Jekyll's drug definitively splits his personality, and whilst the ethical opposites threaded throughout urban civilisation are clear to the reader, the ultimate fear, tied to Darwinian theories of degeneration, is of the beast implicit throughout that culture as a whole which cannot be interpreted because an objective perspective on it cannot be achieved; thus Enfield is terrified not of confronting the monster, but of his inability to classify and describe "it" as a "beast," when it seems so close to the human (15). Likewise, whilst Jekyll's drug fabricates an extreme duality, more common are those Paterian "inexpressible refinement[s] of change" of state cumulatively revealed by material substances such as alcohol, which imperceptibly shift the subject towards the degenerate and the immoral, and which Utterson Puritanically stalls by drinking gin.

The paradox exemplified in Utterson is that to nullify such catalysts towards degeneracy one must become a social flagellant, thus denying the combination Singer emphasises in which the good (pleasant) life can also be the good (moral) one. But the comparison of Utterson's prevented alcoholism with Stevenson's infamous ongoing addictions reminds of the distinction between the personal, irresolvable conflicts of the real-world, and the definitive resolutions of the fiction. The ontologically distinct world of fiction (itself a symbolic opposite to the real) permits the objective perspective to be taken, allowing distinct and absolute values of "good" and "evil" to be interpreted. The fictional narrative of Jekyll and Hyde provides some of the spectatorial value of the freak show, which Gillian Beer notes as prevalent in Victorian culture: "The human 'missing links' displayed at fairs, aquariums, and so-called museums were disabled people, sometimes deaf and dumb, larger or smaller thn the norm, more hairy, with more toes and fingers, an extra limb or particoloured skin. Above all, they were people animalised by imprisonment, by the spectators' gaze, by being cast as the 'other'." The freak show enabled a perspective which temporarily restored the categorical positions of gazer and subject, of higher and degenerate orders of being.9 In a similarly affirmative way, with its structure resembling the movements of the detective novel, Jekyll and Hyde uncovers the "missing link," whilst it is the morally-acceptable Jekyllian side which provides the untransformable voice which seals and solves the narrative, abiding by the conventions of that sub-genre.10 Whilst the novel employs some ideas of the relative in the way evil alternates, sometimes in minuscule ways, into its opposites, the reader's perspective on that movement is absolute, providing paradigms - still powerful today - for good and evil as Jekyll and Hyde. For the reader the knowledge that things can - and, physically governed by Newton's laws, do - pass into their opposites, even as a guiding principle of relativity, thus becomes, paradoxically, a kind of absolute knowledge of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. What is paradoxical is this ultimate trajectory is not perceived by those intimately caught up in it, and that this is a process of a natural law encoded into the universe rather than the result of active human drives for Enlightenment, ideals of activity on which the Imperial project was justified.

Such a stable law of opposites is challenged by Einstein's special theory of relativity of 1905, which argues that interpretations of space and time depend firstly on the choice of an arbitrarily chosen point from which to observe them.11 Virginia Woolf's The Voyage Out shows how the conventions of the novel require the assumption of such an arbitrary viewpoint, thereby destabilising any objective ethical rules a novel may seem, in its structural conventions and in the reading experience, to define.12

Endorsing the colonial "dispersion of the best ideas over the greatest area," Richard Dalloway is proud of the fact that "owing to me some thousands of girls in Lancashire - and many thousands to come after them - can spend an hour every day in the open air which their mothers had to spend over their looms" (56). He equates the geographical spread of enlightened economic practices with the idea that this vindicates their absolute moral value, without realising that an hour's break compared to a life in which "almost everything was specially arranged" (32) does not constitute an egalitarian society. But a hierarchy of powers is justified by the universal perspective Richard takes:

Conceive the world as a whole...conceive the state as a complicated machine; we citizens are parts of that machine; some fulfil more important duties; others (perhaps I am one of them) serve only to connect some obscure parts of the mechanism, concealed from the public eye. Yet if the meanest screw fails in its task, the proper working of the whole is imperilled. (57)

Richard's Fordian ideology of assembly contrasts with the interpretation, from a similarly broad perspective, of mechanistic urbanity with which the novel opens, in which the city is engaged in autotelic industry:13

It appeared that this was a great manufacturing place, where the people were engaged in making things, as though the West End, with its electric lamps, its vast plate-glass windows all shining yellow, its carefully-finished houses, and tiny live figures trotting on the pavement, or bowled along on wheels in the road, was the finished work...For some reason it appeared to her as a small golden tassel on the edge of a vast black cloak. (6)

Comparable with the fog-wrapped London of Jekyll and Hyde, as well as Dickens's Bleak House and Conrad's The Secret Agent, in these representations the omniscient narrator takes a broad perspective - in this case arbitrarily assuming the view from Mrs. Ambrose's eyes - through which people appear deindividuated (compared to ants in the case of Conrad's novel, "tiny live creatures" here), in which industrial production of "things" (like the vacant rituals of the judiciary in Bleak House) seems to have no end other than the decorative.14 This view is reiterated as the ship moves away from England, such that it becomes a "shrinking island in which people were imprisoned" (24), and is perceived again, powerfully and disturbingly, when Hewet and Rachel, standing on the top of the cliff in South America, imagine the flow of the Atlantic to the Thames (194).

Richard's holistic outlook - in which the whole automatically must be more than the sum of its parts - is thus contested by the more belittling conclusions offered through the perspective of the narrator, in line with which Richard fades out of the text to the impersonality he expounds: "The boat separating from the vessel made off towards the land...grew smaller and smaller until it ceased to rise and fall, and nothing could be seen save two resolute backs" (69). The sense of the way in which minutiae culminate to the whole picture, an outline which is markedly different from the image of its individual parts, pervades The Voyage Out. Whereas Richard emphasises absolute conclusions, Woolf places macrocosmic and microcosmic movements side by side. In particular, throughout the novel are emblems of evolution - as the characters (often wearing furs) anthropomorphise into leaves (61), horses (61), insects (122) and "a little deformed man who squatted on the floor gibbering" (68) - which place the events as transitory incidents on the geological timescale.15 Even when a comparably broad viewpoint is adopted by two different observers, the same thing might be perceived differently depending on the relative cohabitation of one outlook with other, similarly broad, perspectives.

That even the omniscient, universal view is also a relative one is inherent in the novel's structure. Whereas writing in Jekyll and Hyde is an action in which some form of essential identity and knowledge are preserved (the signatures of Jekyll and Hyde are identical; Jekyll's "Full Statement of the Case" provides closure), here the numerous intertexts remind that The Voyage Out is itself only an element of a matrix of other literary traditions: Romanticism, women's writing, Greek poetry.16 Simultaneously, however, it is this novel in particular which is read, driven by the acts of an unsilenceable narrator, whose authoritarian control extends to contradict the conventional shape of the novel which, though clearly drawing on the Victorian bildungsroman, closes with the death of Rachel, the central character whose intellectual and social growth provides the direction of the book.

Woolf thus denies that any one universal perspective can be on its own more ethical or more privileged than other ones. The optimum ethical position is instead that which recognises the value of personal, subjective knowledge combined with detached and rational observation.17 Richard's alter-ego is Rachel, whose music initially absorbs her into accepting "her lot very complacently, blazing into indignation perhaps once a fortnight, and subsiding as she subsided now" (29). Rachel's development as an individual who learns to balance emotion with rationality culminates (tragically) in her illness, which provides a new perspective combining the subjective and the universal, the physical and the abstract:

It was true that she saw Helen and saw her room, but everything had become very pale and semi-transparent. Sometimes she could see through the wall right in front of her...Helen's form stooping to raise her in bed appeared of gigantic size, and came down upon her like the ceiling falling. But for long spaces of time she would merely lie conscious of her body floating on the top of her bed and her mind driven to some remote corner of her body, or escaped and gone flitting round the room. (327)

The restrictions which tie the body and the consciousness in space, and thus to a particular mode of view, are released in the wholly unusual perspective of the sick person. Whilst disturbing, the translucency of the wall here is not unreal, since it is explicable as a psychological phenomena. However, the possibility that the boundaries of physical space could be warped physically was proposed by Hugh Everett's "many-worlds interpretation" of 1957, which theorises not that things may pass into their opposites, but rather into those alternative universes which are almost identical to those in which the observer is situated.18 Again, this controversial scientific theory does not signify a completely revolutionary metaphor, since the heterocosm has long been a dramatic device of literature (as in Shakespeare's comedies, for example), whilst Cartesian dualism implies two concurrent spheres (the mental and the bodily or material) interoperating within one organism, a logic of which Rachel's near-death experience quoted above is an extension. However, the concept of distinct states coexisting relative to each other receives a new treatment in Lessing's The Memoirs of a Survivor, making the problem not that of the perspective on the real, but on the discrete nature of the real and the fictional themselves.19

The verisimilitude of the novel is fundamentally unstable, as there are not one but two alternative fictional frames. Is the more realistic arena a "parallel world" (perfectly plausible according to contemporary physics) containing domestic events and recognisable, Victorian-styled interiors, or a physical world with implicitly futuristic events in which the social and physical environment is indistinctly disintegrating? In eliding the catalyst which has triggered the fragmentation of society, Lessing frustratingly denies any convincing orientation of the novel's two contexts in relation to extra-textual normality, particularly since the explicit foundation of the text on history (as an autobiography), so clearly conflicts with the futuristic science-fiction genre in which it is located by its subject-matter and style. The novel's realism thus becomes a subjective notion mediated by language, a signified which is disconnected from signifier and addresser, just as the "news" in the novel hangs "in the air," coming "from no one knew where" (13).

Against this framework, determining absolute ethical principles becomes impossibly complex, and thus The Memoirs can be read partly as an attack on the political theories of the 1960s and 1970s which seek to present the way the world really is, through a structured authoritarian language. The undefined event, rather than in itself causing division and destruction, has simply exposed the fact that the societies organisational structures - its distinctions of class, race and species (the latter being explored through the humanised Hugo) - are false. This revelation of underlying foundations places the novel in a Marxist critical tradition, as Lessing anticipates. From the outset, the narrator draws attention to categories of class: she lives on the ground floor, below the "fine air" of the upper storeys of flats "built by private money" (9). Later, she discusses the Ryans in politically-provocative terms: All sorts of experiment in communalism had been worked through, apart from the fact that people like 'the Ryans' had dispensed with ideas of mine and thine, and this without any theories or ideas about it...'the Ryans', meaning a way of life, were unassimilable, both in theory - theories about society and how it worked - and in practice (107).

But in contrast with such political interpretations, Lessing deliberately opens the structure of the novel to psychoanalytic readings, with the worlds of the street and the wall corresponding to the conscious and the unconscious.20 Postcolonial critics might observe the peculiar geography of the "survivor" (an expatriate?) situated between a professor, called White, and a family of Indians, from Kenya (10-11). Gerald and Emily's final entry into the garden world, escaping from an apocalyptic vision, echoes with the closing sequence of Paradise Lost, and posits it as a postmodern version of Genesis. In perhaps the most overtly comic moment of the novel, Lessing attacks radical feminism for its denial of the biological instinct, through its blind devotion to an abstract theory of gender, as the "band of girls...self-consciously and loudly critical of male authority, male organisation, as if they had set themselves a duty always to be there commenting on everything the men did" find themselves "straying off and attaching themselves to the men, sometimes the other women" (144).

The Memoirs draws a clear diversion between political theories and "official announcements" (12), and the evidence of the instinctive eyes and the personal discourse with which the unfolding story is apprehended and reacted to by the participants, and of which this book, as a "memoir," is one such personal narrative. As Singer does in his philosophy, Lessing asserts the perils of theory when it tries to provide the objective and universal interpretation, denying the value of informing one's ethics based on subjective experience. (Indeed, it was against this severing of theory from practice that Peter Singer started writing in the 1960s, a period when philosophy at the university seemed staunchly to continue to teach theoretical ethics, ignoring the very real ethical problems vibrating in popular culture in the streets outside the classroom).21 In the case of the feminist group it is their authoritarian leader who denies the norm; Lessing was publically scathing in her criticism of such activism: "It's just the big movements I distrust. I think that we should try to do small things that are achievable. They tend to work. But when you see, as continually emerges: We believe in Justice, Progress, Education for Everybody, Freedom for Women, da, da, da, da...Oh my God, what a game."22 However, against the artificiality of protest, in Memoirs the biologically-determined sexual instinct of the crowd is vindicated. Published within a decade of the moon landings, the Cuban missile crisis, anti-war marches in Washington, Lessing must have been aware of how technology was revealing the collaborative consciousness of the "lonely crowd" (the title of the influential sociological book published in 1950), in which the individual was of decreasing importance in a global culture bound together heterogeneously through the media and education.23 Thus in Memoirs the crowd of young people acts as a unified organism:

They had relinquished individuality, that was the point, individual judgement and responsibility, and this showed in a hundred ways, not least by one's instinctive reaction in an encounter with them, which was always a sharp apprehension...They could not stand being alone for long; the mass was their home, their place of self-recognition. (34)

In this presentation of the crowd as a conscious social body, Lessing provides a more optimistic paradigm than the unconscious masses who inhabit the hazy environments presented by Stevenson, Woolf and their contemporaries. But, as with these earlier works, the same paradox arises in which the passive relinquishment of individuality to an anterior law of nature denies the value of human agency as a force for changing the world for the better.

As relativity complicates the nature of absolute knowledge, it apparently vindicates the value of the natural instinct as its only substitute, although this raises further problems about human authority, challenges felt particularly acutely at the height of Imperialism. However, in something of a full-circle, both Stevenson and Lessing reinvigorate fiction's ability to create worlds and perspectives - themselves consciously and determinedly relative and alternative to the real - in which ethics can be scrutinised more objectively by the isolated reader. Reading the dramas of the relative becomes a compensatory stable act: the aesthetic becomes a temporary moment of Singer's "good life," in that it provides a pleasurable period of subjective experience - the importance of which Lessing emphasises by pre-emptively subverting absolute literary-critical analyses - in combination with its enabling us to do what Singer suggests and "distance ourselves from our own point of view and take on, instead, a wider perspective, ultimately even the point of view of the universe."24

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  1. That is not to conflate the exact meaning of the mathematical theory of relativity (which Einstein preferred anyway to call the "theory of invariances") with philosophical relativism. However, the scientific theory of relativity is nevertheless a very powerful metaphor which conceptually endorses the value of the latter as a way of thinking. [Back to text]

  2. William Shakespeare, The Winter's Tale, The Complete Works, ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988) 4.1.1-32; Virginia Woolf, Orlando (London: Hogarth, 1928) 91. [Back to text]

  3. Peter Singer, How Are We to Live: Ethics in an Age of Self Interest (Oxford: Opus-Oxford UP, 1997) 263. [Back to text]

  4. For a brief synopsis of the currency of the concept of relativism for the Victorian avant garde, see Christopher Herbert, "Mrs. Dalloway, the Dictator, and the Relativity Paradox," Novel 35.1 (2001): 104-124. [Back to text]

  5. Walter Pater, "Coleridge's Writings," Westminster Review 85 (1866): 106-132, at 107. [Back to text]

  6. Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1886 (London: Penguin, 1994). [Back to text]

  7. J.C. Maxwell, "On Governors," Proceedings of the Royal Society London 16 (1868): 270-283. [Back to text]

  8. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, 1818, ed. Marilyn Butler (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994); H.G. Wells, The Island of Dr. Moreau, 1896, ed. Brian Aldiss (London: Everyman-Dent, 1993). [Back to text]

  9. Gillian Beer, "Forging the Missing Link: Interdisciplinary Stories," Open Fields: Science in Cultural Encounter (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996) 115-148, at 130. [Back to text]

  10. Beer remarks also that "It is no accident that the fascination with the missing like and the rise of the detective novel occur in the same historical period. The phrase 'the missing link' suggests a heuristic search, for a lost link in a chain of reasoning, as much as the search for the evidence of physical remains. It came also rapidly to signify outlandish, even monstrous creatures, as yet undiscovered and, quite probably, fraudulent. The search for the missing link therefore frequently shifts from the interpretation of physical vestiges to the detection of human agents." Beer 118. [Back to text]

  11. Steven Savitt, "Being and Becoming in Modern Physics," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2002 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta, 4 Feb. 2004, U of Stanford, 7 Apr. 2005 <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2002/entries/spacetime-bebecome/>. [Back to text]

  12. Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out, 1915, ed. and introd. Jane Wheare (London: Penguin, 1992). [Back to text]

  13. Henry Ford's first assembly line started rolling in 1913. [Back to text]

  14. See Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent, 1907, ed. Martin Seymour Smith (London: Penguin, 1984) 103; Charles Dickens, Bleak House, 1853, ed. Stephen Gill, Oxford World's Classics (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998) 11-12. [Back to text]

  15. For a discussion of how the expedition to the village in the jungle may rewrite Darwin's journey in The Voyage of the Beagle, see Alexandra Peat, "Modern Pilgrimage and the Authority of Space in Forster's A Room with a View and Woolf's The Voyage Out," Mosaic 36.4 (2003): 139-53. [Back to text]

  16. And even, albeit anachronistically, Woolf's canon, since the Dalloways are re-encountered in her later works. [Back to text]

  17. Ironically, modern theoretical science is arguably now recognising the value of combining metaphysical and empirical modes of speculation, one outcome of which is that its search for the symbolic "God particle" to vindicate Einstein's theories also signals a return to some dimension of the religious. The existence of such a fundamental building block implies a single structural law inscribed in the very fabric of the universe, and the discovery of it may restore the incomprehensible miracle of creation, since beyond this limit of scrutiny nothing more about the way the inherent physical make-up of the universe may be derived. See Leon Lederman, The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question? (New York: Delta, 1994). [Back to text]

  18. Hugh Everett, The Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics: A Fundamental Exposition, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1973). [Back to text]

  19. Doris Lessing, The Memoirs of a Survivor, 1974 (London: Picador-Pan, 1976). [Back to text]

  20. Trudy Mercer, "The Conviction of Promise: Doris Lessing's Memoirs of a Survivor," Trudy Mercer's Eclectic Edition, ed. Trudi Mercer, 10 Oct. 2002, 6 Apr. 2005 <http://www.drizzle.com/~tmercer/write/lessing/memoirs-survivor1.shtml>. [Back to text]

  21. Dale Jameieson notes that Dale Jameieson, "Singer and the Practical Ethics Movement," Singer and His Critics, ed. Dale Jamieson (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999) 1-15, at 3. [Back to text]

  22. Susie Linfield, "Against Utopia: An Interview with Doris Lessing," Salmagundi: A Quarterly of the Humanities and Social Sciences 130-131 (2001): 59-74, Literature Online 2 Apr. 2004 <http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2003&xri:pqil:res_ver=0.2&res_id=xri:lion&rft_id=xri:lion:rec:abell:R01597507>. In this representation of the feminists in The Memoirs of a Survivor, the leader is possibly figured on Germaine Greer, who had published The Female Eunach four years earlier. [Back to text]

  23. For its analysis of the breakdown of class boundaries, and on character traits that are "always there" and which are brought out by the relationship with the crowd, Reisman's study might provide a useful lens through which to interpret The Memoirs of a Survivor. David Riesman, Nathan Glazer and Ruel Denney, The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character, 1950, abr. ed. (New Haven: Yale UP, 1961). [Back to text]

  24. Singer 272. [Back to text]

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This page was published on March 9, 2005 | Keywords: relativity, Jekyll and Hyde, Virginia Woolf, Memoirs of a Survivor

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