Stevenson uses structure and narrative throughout the story specifically to build tension. It’s important to remember that a narrator may be part of the story (like Mr Utterson) or a non-participant, someone who is not part of the story at all. A narrator can be unreliable; certain parts of a narrative may be from other perspectives and thus call it into question – you can trust no one! Structure is noted by AQA as revealing:
- The (narrative) perspective of the text (what?)
- The organisation and use of time (when?)
- The location and setting (where?)
- Characters and how they are introduced (who?)
- The different patterns within the text, and elements of syntax or cohesion that help to create (reinforce) meaning (how?)
- On first reading of an extract, try getting students to ‘put the puzzle together’, as suggested above.
Starting by equipping students with the language required to write about structure and narrative solves a fair chunk of what can make teaching it a challenge. Here are some of the technical terms I work with:
|Structure and Narrative Form|
|First person narrative||From the point of view of the person telling the story.|
|Third person narrative||A third-person narrator can sometimes be omniscient, when they have a bird’s-eye-view of all the goings on. Or they can be limited, and stick closely to the perspectives of just one or two characters.|
|Tension||In either positive or negative anticipation of an outcome.|
|Suspense||The lack of certainty the author creates.|
|Chronological order||Events arranged in the order they happened.|
|Flashbacks||A flashback is an interjected scene that takes the narrative back in time from the current point in the story.|
|Flash-forwards||A flash-forward is an interjected scene that takes the narrative forward in time from the current point in the story.|
|Beginning/middle/end||Traditional narrative pattern.|
|Patterns||Anything that is recurring in a story.|
|Shifts||The change in mood or attitude that is typically accompanied by a corresponding change in the focus and language of a literary scene, passage or theme.|
|Sequence||Plot or pattern of events – often involves conflict and resolution.|
|Consequence||A result or effect of an action.|
|Climax||The highest and most intense point in the narrative.|
|Rising action||Series of events that create tension.|
|Falling action||Series of events after the climax and a resolution.|
|Cyclical||Events happening in order and being repeated.|
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)
“‘This is a strange note,’ said Utterson.”
Stevenson leaves the reader a breadcrumb trail of different forms to piece together; the reader, much like Utterson, becomes a detective. Similar to Shelley’s Frankenstein, this epistolary style adds a realistic element to the narrative, especially because different characters reveal different pieces of information. This creates a fragmented effect as these different forms can only reveal tiny parts of the whole. The variety of framing devices also pushes the reader to constantly question the reliability of the documents:
Hyde’s cheque to Enfield: The hard evidence of Jekyll’s signature proffered by Hyde is arguably the birth of the ‘investigation’ to reveal the truth that Stevenson invites the reader on. What is initially troubling is the absence of the signature’s author, but even more so, the fact that Enfield finds the cheque to be genuine: “I gave in the cheque myself, and said I had every reason to believe it was a forgery. Not a bit of it. The cheque was genuine.”
Jekyll’s will: For Utterson, Jekyll’s will is the starting point of his hunt for Mr Hyde. Despite the anecdotal evidence from Mr Enfield’s story, the will is a more authentic and weighty piece of evidence that suggests foul play is at work. Class is a relevant aspect of the story to note here; the fact that Jekyll is a well known and respected gentlemen further calls into question the nature of his relationship with such a satanic character as Hyde.
Carew’s letter: This a perfectly placed piece of evidence used to instil tension and suspense for the Sherlock Holmes within us all. Found on Carew’s lifeless body, the reader is desperate to discover what gold it holds…but we never do! Stevenson purposefully tempts the reader and then leaves gaps to build on the rising action.
Hyde’s letter: After Carew’s untimely death, Jekyll gives this letter to Utterson. This letter initially reassures Utterson which releases some of the tension. However, it is this document that reveals the true potential for mystery and intrigue, because Poole then insists it was never delivered to the house. Guest then takes a closer look at the handwriting leading Utterson to believe Hyde is forging Jekyll’s hand. Stevenson dangles the opportunity of discovery before the reader’s very eyes and yet it can still remain unseen, lurking in the shadows, untouched.
There are several examples of where Stevenson has embedded different narratives within the story (this is a story within a story of sorts). The novella itself begins with the Story of the Door. The door is an intriguing symbol of secrets and immediately creates a sense of mystery. The fact that it is anecdotal further conveys a sense of narrative layering that invites detective thinking.
The Carew murder is told from the perspective of a maid at a window – another symbol that reflects something that opens to a hidden place; the maid is a hidden watcher. The fact that the maid is emotional and is described as “romantically given” pushes the reader to question her account as it is not clear how much we can trust her narrative.
The tone of the language also changes throughout the novella. This signals important shifts to the reader, for example Lanyon’s narrative is formal and sincere. In contrast to the maid, this makes his account more believable and more credible. It is significant therefore, that this is the first time the reader hears about Jekyll transforming into Hyde – it must be vivid and absolute.
And finally, the fact that the title of the novella is “The Strange Case…” informs the reader that it will read like a detective story, full of accounts, documents and different points of view.
Thank you for reading.
Categories: English Literature