In ‘The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde’, the audience is introduced to a situation that at first seems very peculiar and fictitious. Upon later examination however it becomes abundantly obvious that the author is utilizing his position as a writer to bring attention to the double nature of humanity, by referencing the duality of every component within the story. The dual nature of the Victorian man, and of society in general, is investigated as the author ties in the notion that this was an era of hypocrisy and sanctimony. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde serve as two opposing characters, alter egos of the very same man. They stand to represent the contrasting thoughts, beliefs, desires, and actions among individuals when they are in private compared to when they are in public. One side of his mind will lead him towards a prosperous life of success, but he will be devoid of the animalistic tendencies everyone secretly desires to embrace. Whereas the other side of his consciousness will put him on a path towards lust, violence, and debauchery. Though the choice may seem obvious to the audience, the idea that is conveyed here shows that when given a choice between what we want and what we know we should do, we may not always choose what would be considered the right course of action. Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde’ utilizes symbolism, allegory, and multiple different variations of interpretation to show in a number of differing ways the dichotomy that exists within each human being.
The starring monster of the narrative emerges from a deeply concerning place, the darkly evil and insane side of the human mind. Within the story, Dr. Jekyll is a highly commended member of society, that is working on various experiments to free himself of his own “bestial” and “ape-like” other self, the hidden part of his psyche: Mr. Hyde (Stevenson). It is through this work that Stevenson so accurately portrayed the dual nature of more than just one man, but of our whole society as well. During the story honesty is immediately contrasted with deceit, recklessness with moderation, and purity with shame. This expression of a dual nature even exists within London as its rather admirable streets are represented alongside areas in which brutality, violence, and poverty are well known.
When looking from the surface, Dr. Jekyll is by definition a good man. He is well respected in his position, and no one has any reason to think poorly of him. Contrastingly, Mr. Hyde is pure evil. He is a careless and cruel murderer, more than willing to even kill a little girl merely because she was in his way. On a much deeper level though, the contrast is not simply an argument between good and evil, but rather between progression and regression. The description of Mr. Hyde’s physical attributes causes an ascension of disgust among readers as he is described to be “hardly human” (Stevenson). As put by Mr. Enfield, “There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable” (Stevenson). What Stevenson does in the novel to make Hyde’s appearance so detestable is create the unconscious reminder that he is a degenerated version of the current man. His presence serves as a subconscious notice to all that he comes across, that he is a distant unevolved relative of what man once was.
When Stevensons’ novel was written, Charles Darwin had relatively recently released a book, ‘The Descent of Man’, which had discussed his theory of evolution, and natural selection. Hyde, as previously mentioned, obviously represents the very primitive, unclassy, uncivilized and barbaric root off of which man evolved. By continually using “ape-like” as a description for Hyde, an emphasis is placed on the fact that he is an underdeveloped barbarian when compared to Dr. Jekyll, an admirable doctor and member of society. This correlates with the idea of devolution, and capitalizes on the fears that Victorian people had of degeneracy of humanity. When Dr. Jekyll states that he “bore the stamp, of lower elements in my soul”, Stevenson is calling on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and the notion that every man carries with him an undeniable and undiscarable piece of his earlier ancestors, or more aptly put “the indelible stamp of his lowly origin” (Darwin).
This duality exists on many levels in the story, as we can even see through Dr. Jekyll’s house. When Dr. Jekyll enters through the front, the house presents a “great air of wealth and comfort” (Stevenson). However, when Mr. Hyde enters, the building is described as displaying an air of “prolonged and sordid negligence” (Stevenson). Though both of them entered into the same house, they entered on different sides. The respectable front of the home, and the beat-up backside of the home both act as sides to the very same property. Stevenson is showing not only that the reputable and disreputable very often exist within worryingly nearby closeness, but that a decent and proper front does not always show the truth. A presentable and well respected facade can hide a great deal of issues and secrets that exists beneath the surface (Kreitzer 1992).
Building off the idea that appearances can be widely deceiving, we see Mr. Enfield, a man that appears to be honest and proper, first encountering Hyde when he is “coming home from some place at the end of the world, about three o’clock of a black winter morning” (Stevenson). We are never given specifics as to where Mr. Enfield was, or what he had been doing, but the insinuation is that his activities at that early hour of the morning are not innocent. In each instance during the novel in which individuals or happenings may at first seem harmless, pure or sincere, there is always something shady and menacing hiding beneath the surface as the audience goes to look for a more clear view and solid understanding.
Through use of differing physical descriptions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to emphasize the evolution theory and the work of Darwin, Stevenson also creates very contradicting personalities between these two which allows for the audience to take a look at the more modern debates of morals and multiplicity within the human mind. Stevenson accurately splits Dr. Jekyll’s mind into two regions: the strong moral man that always tries to do what is best and usually is quite successful in life, despite having to suppress his urges that are wrong by societal standards; and the amoral man that acts out in cruelty and rage with no sense of what is wrong or right in a sad attempt to satisfy his animalistic impulses. Through creating this dichotomy of characters, two men existing within one body, Stevenson is delving into a dramatized and much more extreme battle that every human being faces. As stated by Dr. Jekyll, “I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both” (Stevenson). By way of Hyde, the once respected and admired Dr. Jekyll is liberated from the moderations that society forced on him as he states “my devil had been long caged, he came out roaring” (Stevenson). In the end of the novel, Jekyll admits that one day he will have no choice but to decide between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, both of which would mean great losses for him. If he were to forever embrace Mr. Hyde, he would be giving up all his hard work and honest goals to be ‘forever despised and friendless’ (Stevenson). However if he chose to live life as Dr. Jekyll he would be losing all of the physical, animalistic, and scandalous behavior that he can enjoy as Hyde. Through the line “the terms of this debate are as old and commonplace as man” (Stevenson), it is implied that even with this odd scenario Jekyll is in, every human can relate to what he is facing. It is in our very nature to struggle between what we know we should do, and what we want to do (Singh & Chakrabarti 2008).
This classic novella can not take on any one definitive meaning, as the allegory and symbolism point this story in all sorts of varying directions. What makes this novella applicable in the lives of so many is the fact that these symbols can point the audience in multiple different directions all at the same time. It has a rather multifaceted element about it, which allows for many relevant and accurate interpretations of the piece. By looking at the novel through a Darwinian lens, we can also touch on the darker side of a man’s primal urges (violence, rape, murder, etc.). This has the narrative take on a kind of psychoanalytic meaning, as the primal inclination towards sexual desires and lustful actions take on a forefront. From this perspective, the scene in which the girl is trampled takes on a whole new level of meaning as it is very specifically a girl that is trampled, instead of a boy. This symbolizes the animalistic tendencies Hyde has, and his deep desire to conquer anyone of the opposite sex (Singh & Chakrabarti 2008).
The story of Jekyll and Hyde can also be interpreted in the perspective of sexuality at the time, with a complete lack of women present within the novel (with the exception of the maid, the hag, and the trampled girl). Certain audiences suggest that there is an element of blackmail for homosexual acts within the story. The story even mentions the “Black Mail House” (Stevenson) as Mr. Enfield is describing Mr. Hyde’s house. The novel serves as an allegory for the duplicitous lives led by homosexual Victorian era men that had to conceal their prohibited excursions (Sanna 2012). Due to the era in which he was writing, Stevenson could not directly reference homosexuality and had to instead stick to subtle hints. The behavior of Sir Danvers Carew can even be interpreted as a moment of homosexuality within the noveal after he “accosted” Hyde “with a very pretty manner” (Stevenson). In this tale of duality, no person is exactly what they claim to be.
As briefly mentioned, this story can also be seen from a psychoanalytic perspective. In sticking with Frued’s terms, Jekyll would be the ego, and Hyde the id. The ego is the self, whereas the id is the primitive desires found in the unconscious mind (sexual urges, violent acts, desire to kill, etc.). In many instances Hyde is described as almost childlike, perhaps representing a deep desire within each human to go back to a much simpler time, a time without accountability and maturity. Stevenson is emphasizing the fact that each human desires at some point in their life to be young again, and to live freely and act in any desired way (Singh & Chakrabarti 2008). Also of note is the fact that dreams play a rather important part in this story as Jekyll states that he “received Lanyon’s condemnation partly in a dream; it was partly in a dream that I came home to my own house and got into bed” (Stevenson).
It is even possible to see the novel strictly through the idea of hypocrisy as the main theme. By showing the dichotomy of Jekyll’s personality, Stevenson is accurately portraying the polarity of a Victorian society, showing that while fostering internal desires towards violence, lust, and any other pleasures, you must wrap these urges and keep them controlled while posing as a polite and well mannered member of society among your peers. Each character within this story is hiding their true feelings, thoughts and wants from everyone around them. Even Inspector Newcomen, someone that holds a position in which you would expect professionalism and morality, gets excited at learning that someone has been murdered. The line reads“‘the next moment his eye lighted up with professional ambition” (Stevenson), showing the audience that he could hardly hide how happy he was to hear this news. Similarly, the woman that answers Hyde’s door has a face that is evil and “smoothed by hypocrisy; but her manners were excellent” (Stevenson). The commonality here is that everyone is hiding their true nature. They all live as hypocrites completely accepting their desires despite their efforts to conceal them from the public.
- Antonio Sanna. “Silent Homosexuality in Oscar Wilde’s Teleny and The Picture of Dorian Gray and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.” Law and Literature, vol. 24, no. 1, 2012, pp. 21–39. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/lal.2012.24.1.21.
- Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man. Watts, 1946.
- Kreitzer, Larry. “R. L. STEVENSON’S ‘STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR.HYDE’ AND ROMANS 7: 14—25: IMAGES OF THE MORAL DUALITY OF HUMAN NATURE.” Literature and Theology, vol. 6, no. 2, 1992, pp. 125–144. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23924484.
- Singh, Shubh M, and Subho Chakrabarti. “A study in dualism: The strange case of Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Indian journal of psychiatry vol. 50,3 (2008): 221-3. doi:10.4103/0019-5545.43624
- Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde. Gutenberg, 2008.