A Plea for Gas Lamps and Jekyll and Hyde
In "A Plea for Gas Lamps" Robert Louis Stevenson describes how, with the advent
of urban gaslight, "a new age had begun for sociality and corporate pleasure
seeking." Referring to the lamps as "domesticated stars," he describes the new
lamplit city emerging gracefully as a festive public sphere in which "soft joys
prevail" and "people are convoked to pleasure." Wolfgang Schivelbush connects
such gaslit pleasure directly to commerce. "Gaslight offered life, warmth and
closeness. This was true also of the relationship between light and the shop
goods upon which it fell. They were close to each other, ...view middle of the document...
A sedate electrician somewhere in a back
office touches a spring -- and behold! . . . the design of the monstrous city
flashes into vision -- a glittering hieroglyph many square miles in extent." The
monstrosity of the city is defined by this sudden, startling uniformity, which
obliterates the its pleasing variety, rendering it a vast, but simple design.
Moreover, Stevenson explicitly portrays the new brightly-lit city as a place of
brutal crime. "A new sort of urban star now shines out nightly, horrible,
unearthly, obnoxious to the human eyes. . . A lamp for a nightmare! Such a light
as this should shine only on murders and public crime, or along the corridors of
lunatic asylums, a horror to heighten horrors." The more and stronger light,
Stevenson seems to be saying, the more terrifying and criminal the landscape
becomes. This seems odd, since throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries the discourse of street lighting focuses on crime prevention--and
common sense seems to suggest that more light means less crime. But when gas
lighting began to spread in the mid nineteenth century, its opponents claimed
that it would enable criminals, by creating a more efficient nightworld.(Robins
142) In the quote above Stevenson echoes the idea that criminal acts occur not
in darkness but in light--that the streetlight itself becomes synecdochic of the
Let us look at Enfield's description of his first sight of Hyde in this context.
I was coming home from some place at the end of the world, about three o'clock
of a black winter morning, and my way lay through a part of town where there
was literally nothing to be seen but lamps. Street after street, and all the
folks asleep--street after street, all lighted up as if for a procession and
all as empty as a church--till at last I got into a state of mind when a man
listens and listens and begins to long for the sight of a policeman. (3)
The association between uniform, efficient streetlighting and crime that we see
in Stevenson's discussion of electric lighting emerges quite explicitly here.
Enfields' uneasiness arises from the geometrical simplicity of the scene in
which only lamps are visible. One literally sees nothing but lamps, and the
lamps offer no real visual object, leading the eye onto the next in line,
"street after street." All the bustling visual...