Middle-Class Masculinity in Crisis: From Jekyll and Hyde to Fight Club

 
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Both Robert Louis Stephenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club emerged at moments in history in which masculinity—specifically white, middle-class masculinity—was perceived to be in crisis. Jekyll and Hyde was written in 1886, at a time in which the professional men of the emerging middle class chafed under a perceived lack of agency as they were corralled into domesticity and inaction by shifting economic models. Fight Club was written in 1996, amid a growing body of media decrying the way corporate culture disenfranchised and de-individualized middle-class men, who became out-of-touch with their masculine power. In both novels, the middle-class main character feels stifled by the class and gender roles he is expected to play within society. Both men find an escape through alter-egos who represent the lower, working class, and thus are free to enact a primitive, violent masculinity and rebel against middle-class repression; this transgression of the norms of masculinity contains elements of class warfare, which functions as a commentary on the intersection of masculinity and class in these novels.

The middle of the nineteenth century marked a period of emerging class consciousness among the middle class of England. Dr. Jekyll is a preeminent example of the Victorian middle-class man, defined by his profession—doctor—and confined to the domestic sphere throughout the course of the novel. In fact, Jekyll is never shown outside of his home, and as the Hyde personality grows stronger, Jekyll is even more hemmed in: his friend Utterson, seeing his face in the window, entreats him to come outside, but Jekyll replies that he “should like to very much; but no, no, no, it is quite impossible.” In the “agonized womb of consciousness” in which the two sides of his personality struggle, Jekyll represents the “internalized ethic of self-control” that characterized the emerging middle-class Victorian gentleman. He says he has led “nine tenths a life of effort, virtue and control” and describes the discovery of the drug that transforms him into Hyde as “[shaking] the doors of the prisonhouse of [his] disposition.” Like other Victorian middle-class men, Jekyll—who, though “born… to a large fortune,” is clearly aligned with the professional class by his association with doctors and lawyers—seeks an escape from domesticity and self-repression by transgressing the boundaries of the newly formulated class consciousness.

When Jekyll consumes the drug that transforms him into Hyde, repression gives way to regression: if the middle class, with its strict edict of moral self-control, represents progress and civilization, then this transformation into Hyde marks a return to the freer, more sensual masculinity of the past, embodied in a working-class persona. Hyde’s class is identified by his plain dress and the poor neighborhood where he lives; meanwhile, his “every act and thought [are] centered on self; [he drinks] pleasure with bestial avidity from any degree of torture to another.” “Street life” was viewed by the Victorian middle class as imbued with “imagery of undiminished personal vitality” and associated with “bravura” and the “assertive, individual agency” of the past. Upon his first transformation into the persona of Hyde, Jekyll describes experiencing “a heady recklessness, a current of disordered sensual images running like a mill race in [his] fancy, a solution of the bonds of obligation, an unknown but not an innocent freedom of the soul,” a clear example of this “undiminished personal vitality.”

At first, Jekyll is able to control the transformations and separate his life into two distinct spheres, symbolized by geographic location—Hyde rents an apartment in “the dismal quarter of Soho,” surrounded by “ragged children” and immigrants—but over time, Hyde begins invading both Jekyll’s body and upper- and middle-class spaces such as Cavendish Square and Regents Park. It is not merely one man’s struggle with himself, but a struggle between the classes, one that comes to a head when Hyde murders an aristocrat, Sir Danvers Carew. Transgressive masculinity and class transgression result in barriers breaking down and ultimately in a destruction of the body that is at the center of the conflict.

In America of the 1990s, the idea of middle-class man was again perceived to be at a point of crisis and redefinition: mindless jobs in corporate settings had stripped men of their individuality and masculine power, exacerbated by the growing rate of “fatherless” families, which resulted in a “fragile masculine identity.” Corporate office jobs were seen to have alienated men from their work. Rather than deriving a sense of value from producing something concrete and tangible, men were absorbed into the sphere of consumerism and the preoccupation with the appearance of their selves and their homes, a sphere associated with femininity. At the same time, the masculine image was becoming commodified in mainstream media, construing the male body as an object of sexual desire. The conception of a crisis in masculinity coincided with the emergence of masculinity as a focus of academic study, along with a whole slew of movies and other media that aspired to rally the “everyman” into reclaiming his rightful place within the home, the work environment, and society.

Like Dr. Jekyll, the narrator of Fight Club is a middle-class man who resents the passivity and restraint forced upon him by his class status and gender. His identity is defined by consumerism: although he works at a car company, he is not involved in the production of the vehicles themselves. He is a “recall campaign coordinator” who calculates whether the company should recall vehicles when a problem has been discovered in their manufacture. In this manner, he is utterly detached from the tangible results of his labor—even the deaths caused by faulty vehicles are only numbers to him—and his work becomes simply a means of obtaining money in order to buy furnishings and decorations for his home, making him “a slave to [his] nesting instinct,” a distinctly feminized role. The narrator belongs to “a generation of men raised by women” and is out-of-touch with masculine violence: when he first fights Tyler, he hits him with “a girl’s wide roundhouse to right under his ear.” Emasculated and constrained by the detachment brought on by the march of progress and civilization, the narrator finds his escape by creating and moving into the life of a persona that harnesses “assertive, individual agency” and “bravura”—the distinctly working-class, blue-collar alter ego of Tyler Durden.

Tyler, who is a means of escape from “being perfect and complete” for the narrator, is clearly working-class: he works as “a movie projectionist with the union” and “a banquet waiter at a hotel.” He lives in a run-down house in an industrial neighborhood, far removed from the high-rise apartment where the narrator lives until the apartment is blown up. It is through this working-class persona that the narrator is able to get in touch with primal, masculine violence and power: the narrator declares that “you aren’t alive anywhere like you’re alive at fight club.” The goal of Project Mayhem, an offshoot of fight club, is “to teach each man in the project that he [has] the power to control history … [and] take control of the world”—specifically, the consumerist world in which they are trapped and feel themselves to be disempowered. By participating in violence and accruing scars, the narrator and other middle-class men take control of their bodies, which mainstream media has commodified: “It’s nothing anymore to have a beautiful stock body,” the narrator states.

The narrator regains his masculine power by breaking out of the modes of behavior dictated for middle-class men and emulating the behavior of a man coded as working-class. Under Tyler’s influence, the narrator confronts his boss, threatening him with violence and blackmail, which is “Tyler’s words coming out of [his] mouth,” and he reflects that he “used to be such a nice person.” But this masculine power eventually gets out of hand: when the narrator becomes aware of Tyler’s campaign to castrate opponents of fight club, he determines to “rush around and undo the damage” much like Dr. Jekyll, whose conscience is assuaged by making reparations for the violent actions of his alter-ego. Once the transgression goes too far, the middle-class man’s “internalized ethic of self-control” re-asserts itself in an attempt to control the unrestrained, primal masculinity of the working-class persona.

Both Jekyll and Hyde and Fight Club express the desire of their era’s middle-class white men to escape from the drudgery and restraint of everyday life through the means of a transgressive, working-class alter-ego. In both cases, the crossing of boundaries between classes takes on elements of class warfare, violence directed toward the upper classes that the middle-class man is powerless to enact, but which is open to the unrestrained working-class man. Taylor is a “renegade waiter” due to his indignation over class inequality: “[T]hey kill whales, Tyler says, to make that perfume that costs more than gold per ounce. … Madam hostess has more bucks than we’ll make in a year in bottles on her bathroom counter.” Like Hyde, who murders an upper-class gentleman, Tyler holds contempt and hatred rather than respect for the upper class, and this resentment escalates until he murders the narrator’s boss at the car company.

Despite the many parallels in the ways the protagonists enact transgression, the association between class and transgression is different in each of the novels. In Jekyll and Hyde, Jekyll’s alliance remains with his class; he is horrified when the physically repulsive Hyde intrudes in upper- and middle-class spaces and when he murders Sir Danvers Carew. The narrator of Fight Club, on the other hand, is drawn in by Taylor Durden’s charm and rhetoric into working-class spaces, getting a job in the service industry and taking up arms against the upper class. Jekyll and Hyde reinforces the class distinctions of Victorian England—all the more inviolable because they were just beginning to solidify. The threat of invasion from the working-class Other is palpable, whereas in Fight Club, transgression by middle-class males is still dangerous, but the whole of society is at fault and class is merely symptomatic of the flaws of a capitalist society, making transgression more attractive. In the end, both novels make a clear distinction between civilized, restricted middle-class male protagonists and primitive, violent working-class men who provide an escape for the protagonists, but Jekyll and Hyde presents this gap as a struggle within human nature, whereas Fight Club presents it as an artificial construct of modern society.

 

Works Cited

Bivona, Dan, and Roger B. Henkle. Introduction. The Imagination of Class: Masculinity and the Victorian Urban Poor. Ohio State University Press, 2006, pp. 1-24.

Hunter, Latham. “The Celluloid Cubicle: Regressive Constructions of Masculinity in 1990s Office Movies.” The Journal of American Culture, vol. 26, no. 1, 2003, pp. 71-86.

Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club. W. W. Norton & Company, 1996.

Stephenson, Robert Loius. Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Norton, 2003.