The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in London in the late 1800s; published in 1886.
An eccentric physician named Dr. Jekyll discovers a potion that changes both his physical appearance and personality. This evil alternate identity, known as Mr. Hyde, slowly becomes the dominant portion of his personality.
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1850, Robert Louis Stevenson came of age during the late Victorian era, a time of wide-spread scientific, technological, and social change. Stevenson, although Scottish-born, spent most of his life out of the country and married an American. Desperate for money and fighting a fit of depression, he allegedly wrote The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde within ten weeks while residing in Bournemouth, England. The success of the novel cemented Stevenson’s writing career.
Stevenson and Scottish Calvinism
As a child, Stevenson was raised in an extremely devout Calvinist environment. This Protestant sect taught that humans were innately sinful and could only be saved by the grace of God. Each person’s fate was determined before birth; people were predestined for either heavenly salvation or eternal hell. Stevenson’s father, a particularly religious man, often told the child tales of destiny and damnation.
Perhaps even more influential in Stevenson’s religious upbringing, however, was his nurse Alison Cunningham, known as “Cummy.” Cummy was a zealously religious Calvinist as well as an avid storyteller. She had become Stevenson’s nurse when he was still an infant. Cummy preached strict Calvinist beliefs to Stevenson and read him Old Testament scripture. By the time Stevenson was a toddler, she had read the Bible to him several times over. Her religious convictions were combined with a belief in the supernatural. Among the stories she told him were numerous tales of ghosts and body-snatchers.
As a result, young Stevenson had an active imagination and was profoundly religious. He was writing devotional stories by age four and liked to play “church.” At night, he wept for Jesus and suffered from nightmares about hell, damnation, and evil. Stevenson was being raised to believe that “there were but two camps in the world; one of the perfectly pious and respectable, one of the perfectly profane, mundane and vicious” (McLynn, p. 19).
Yet as an adult, Stevenson rejected literal Calvinism. The religious background, however, came to permeate his writings. The concept of good and evil locked in combat is, for example, a central theme in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Furthermore, Dr. Jekyll’s resignation and acceptance of his progression into vice and evil reflects the Calvinist belief in destiny and predetermination.
A shift in world view
One of the most profound events that affected late Victorian life was the advent of Darwinism. Until the mid-nineteenth century, Western theologians postulated that the animal passions that humans possessed were God’s way of testing the human will. Most Christians believed that both humans and animals had been created by God, and that they had not fundamentally changed since the time of Creation. Darwin, in contrast, hypothesized that humans had evolved from lower forms of life. Through a process called adaptation, organisms retained useful characteristics that helped them to survive. Meanwhile, those organisms that could not successfully compete for resources simply died out. Life, in short, constituted a battle in which only the most fit species continued.
The impact of Darwinism was widespread and profound. It shook the very foundations of Victorian philosophy, theology, science, and morality. The universe was now conceptualized as a developing, organic entity, and those who accepted this nonreligious view of life itself began applying the theory of evolution to all facets of life.
Darwinism reinforced the Victorians’ belief in the inevitability of progress. Yet it also spurred feelings of pessimism. If life was a struggle for existence, people reasoned, the winners might be the most fit, but not necessarily the best or the most just. If neither man nor God controlled the destiny of humankind, then the strongest, most ruthless and amoral might win, while the good, weak, and humble might lie trampled by the wayside. Furthermore, those who won the struggle for survival supposedly owed their victory to their animal-like qualities rather than to a higher power. Such an idea blurred the distinctions between man and beast. Novels of the era portrayed humans as simply well-developed animals who were endowed with consciousness and intellect but still had much in common with other creatures in the animal kingdom. In the case of Dr. Jekyll, it took only a simple chemical experiment to revert the highly civilized doctor into an animal-like being. The characters in the story often describe Mr. Hyde as a lower form of life, using animal metaphors. Upon meeting Mr. Hyde, for example, Mr. Utterson thinks, “God bless me, the man seems hardly human! Something troglodytic [from the cave-dwelling age], shall we say?” (Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, p. 23).
Science and the late Victorians
Until the nineteenth century, the term “science” had been associated with a broad range of intellectual activities that included philosophy and theology. During the first half of the 1800s, however, science came to signify a specialized knowledge of nature. As the century progressed, this field of learning became further subdivided into various branches of scientific study.
Psychology was a discipline that changed drastically during this time, fusing science with the enigmatic and mysterious in its exploration of the human mind. During the latter half of the 1800s, psychology allied itself with biology and physiology in order to better understand human brain structure and the nervous system. Psychologists, starting off from this perspective, went on to explore the more mysterious facets of the human psyche. The founding in 1882 of the Society for Psychical Research brought together philosophers, spiritualists, psychologists, and physicists to scientifically study the occult. Split personalities were a phenomenon of particular interest to psychological researchers. Such cases had been documented for the first time at the beginning of the century and were widely recognized by the end of the 1800s. Pioneers such as the psychologist Sigmund Freud explored the effects of hypnotism on split personalities, which some researchers believed were elements of the conscious mind that had split off from the rest of the inner being.
Meanwhile, in the medical field, new experimental methods helped researchers discover and identify during the 1880s the germs causing typhoid, malaria, tuberculosis, diphtheria, cholera and the bubonic plague. The rabies vaccination was discovered in 1881 and a serum for diphtheria was produced in 1894. All of these discoveries both excited and frightened the Victorians. It seemed that there was nothing that science could not accomplish. Therefore, when Stevenson first published The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the story provoked an extreme public reaction, unsettling many because it appeared somewhat plausible. As one scholar notes, “So much excitement did the story cause that sermons were preached about it, and the more timid of the Victorians fervently hoped that the doctors who at that time seemed to be discovering everything would not unearth the mysterious drug which Stevenson made Dr. Jekyll use to free the unpleasant Mr. Hyde” (Allen in Geduld, p. 8).
The character of Dr. Jekyll is one of the first literary figures who experiments with mindand personality-altering drugs. He accomplishes his amazing transformation with the aid of a chemical compound that he obtains locally. Unfortunately for Dr. Jekyll, the original salt that manages to produce the transformation is impure, and cannot be replicated. In other words, he cannot obtain a similar sample when one is needed to save him from his alter ego, Mr. Hyde.
In England the sale and use of drugs was uncontrolled until 1868. Until that time, people purchased and used potentially harmful drugs like any other product. Drugs could be bought not only from chemists and druggists, but from innumerable other small venues.
Most people used drugs for medicinal rather than recreational purposes. Home remedies were extremely popular, especially among the poor who could not afford doctors. Mind-altering drugs that were widely available during the late 1800s included hashish imported from India, opium and its derivatives from the Far East, and coca. Opium and opium-based products were especially popular medicines. People commonly used opium products to quiet noisy babies and took laudanum, an opium-based potion mixed with alcohol, as a cure for a variety of ailments.
The other drugs, such as hashish, had rather scandalous reputations. It was said that consumption of hashish could lead to insanity, uncontrollable sexual desire, and murderous rage. Potentially dangerous drugs such as coca and cocaine had only recently been introduced; arguments regarding their potential harm or benefit to mankind would continue into the twentieth century.
Only at the very end of the nineteenth century did doctors begin to recognize the addicting properties of some, but not all, narcotics. For example, heroin, first produced in 1898, was promoted as nonaddictive. A movement to control the sale and use of some narcotics had begun by the end of the century, but had not yet achieved much success.
The story of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is told in several different narrative voices, including those of an attorney named Mr. Utterson, as well as Dr. Jekyll and his friend Dr. Lanyon. One day, as Mr. Utterson and his friend Mr. Enfield are walking together, they pass by a strange door. Mr. Enfield tells a story about the door, describing how one day he saw a small, odd-looking man callously trample a small girl. Mr. Enfield and several other adults helped the frightened girl and apprehended the man, whose demeanor struck fear and loathing in their hearts. The odd-looking man agreed to give the girl’s family money as compensation. The man entered the door in question and quickly returned with a check drawn on the name of Dr. Jekyll, a well-known, respected doctor and a good friend of Mr. Utterson’s. Mr. Enfield tells Mr. Utterson that the stranger’s name was Mr. Hyde. “He is not easy to describe. There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why. He must be deformed somewhere” (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, p. 20).
The story disturbs Mr. Utterson, who has himself heard of Mr. Hyde. That night Utterson rereads Dr. Jekyll’s will, which is in his possession. The will states that in the case of the death or disappearance of Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde will receive all of Dr. Jekyll’s inheritance. The clause disturbs the lawyer and he fears that his friend Jekyll is in trouble. He decides to investigate the matter, and eventually meets Mr. Hyde, who is extremely rude to him. Utterson loathes the man and becomes convinced that Mr. Hyde is black-mailing Dr. Jekyll for some youthful folly.
Nearly a year later, London is shocked by the dreadful murder of Sir Danvers Carew, an elderly, respected gentleman of the community. A maid who witnessed the murder identifies Hyde as the perpetrator. The police ransack Hyde’s dwelling and find the murder weapon but cannot locate him. Mr. Utterson hurries to the house of the distraught Dr. Jekyll, who swears that he will never lay eyes on Mr. Hyde again.
For the next few months, Dr. Jekyll seems to have resumed his composure. He once again associates with his old friends, and even throws a dinner party. Only days afterward, however, he locks himself up in his house and refuses to admit anybody. Concerned once again for his friend’s well-being, Mr. Utterson visits Dr. Lanyon, another friend of Dr. Jekyll’s. Dr. Lanyon is near death, yet secretive about the cause. He says that he has had a shock that will soon kill him and that he never again wants to hear Dr. Jekyll’s name. Dr. Lanyon dies soon afterwards, leaving a letter for Utterson with instructions not to read it until the death or disappearance of Dr. Jekyll. Heeding the instructions, Mr. Utterson puts the letter away.
Some time later, Poole, Dr. Jekyll’s butler, knocks on Mr. Utterson’s door. Visibly terrified, he begs Mr. Utterson to return with him to Dr. Jekyll’s house. “I think there’s been foul play,” says Poole hoarsely (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, p. 34).
Poole knocks on the door to Jekyll’s chamber and announces that Mr. Utterson has come to visit. A male voice replies that he cannot see anyone. Both Poole and Mr. Utterson agree that the voice does not belong to Dr. Jekyll. They break down the door only to find Mr. Hyde dead on the floor from suicide. Dr. Jekyll is nowhere in sight. They find only a note instructing Utterson to first read Dr. Lanyon’s letter and then to read a letter from Dr. Jekyll that lies on the desk.
Dr. Lanyon’s letter describes how he saw with his own eyes Mr. Hyde drink a concoction that transformed him back into Dr. Jekyll. Triumphantly, Mr. Hyde held the concoction aloft bragging, “And now you who have so long been bound to the most narrow and material views, you have denied the virtue of transcendental medicine, you who have derided your superiors —behold!” (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, p. 43). Lanyon concludes his letter by stating that his life has been shaken to its roots by the experience, leading to his death.
Mr. Utterson then opens Dr. Jekyll’s letter. Jekyll first describes his philosophical reflections upon the duality of his own persona. He tells how one part of him was upright and virtuous, while another part reveled in pleasure and evil. Upon recognizing these two sides of his soul, he searched for, and eventually found, a particular concoction of drugs that released the lower elements of his soul and simultaneously transformed his physical body. When he drank the potion, he changed himself into Mr. Hyde—still a part of Dr. Jekyll, the hedonistic and evil side that had previously been repressed.
At first, Dr. Jekyll liked the alter ego of Mr. Hyde; he was nimble and young. Troubles, however, soon emerged. Mr. Hyde grew stronger and more evil, becoming so depraved that he eventually murdered the aged Carew. As a fugitive, Mr. Hyde purposefully transformed into Dr. Jekyll, who swore never again to change his identity.
But one day shortly thereafter, without the aid of a potion, Dr. Jekyll was transformed into Mr. Hyde while sitting on a park bench. This created a dangerous situation. The drugs he needed to change himself back were in his room. Mr. Hyde was a fugitive and could not enter Dr. Jekyll’s house. Hyde decided to employ Dr. Lanyon to get the ingredients for him. The next morning Jekyll was again wracked by the sensations that preceded his transformation into Mr. Hyde. Dr. Jekyll then required a double dose of the serum to maintain himself in that form. From then on, only with great effort could the doctor keep up his own appearance. He always awoke as Mr. Hyde, and was absolutely horrified at his evil self. The body and mind of Dr. Jekyll grew sick and weak, while Mr. Hyde grew stronger.
Dr. Jekyll closed his letter by stating that he had run out of the special salts used to create his potion and was unable to find more. It was under the last dose he composed his suicide letter as Dr. Jekyll: “Here then,” explained the tormented doctor, “as I lay down the pen and proceed to seal up my confession, I bring the life of that unhappy Henry Jekyll to an end” (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, p. 52).
Critics relate a variety of elements in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to the times in which the story is set. One of the most common interpretations examines the characters of Jekyll and Hyde as metaphors for Victorian social codes. In the story, Dr. Jekyll is a well-respected doctor and upright member of the community. He is, however, reputed to have been rather wild as a youth, and his concerned friend, Mr. Utterson, initially fears that Mr. Hyde is blackmailing Dr. Jekyll for some ancient transgression. He muses, “Poor Harry Jekyll... my mind misgives me he is in deep waters! He was wild when he was young; a long while ago to be sure; but in the law of God, there is no statute of limitations” (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, p. 24).
Mr. Hyde, however, is not a blackmailer, but an intricate part of Jekyll himself. In his final letter, Jekyll confesses how, in some ways, he had maintained a double identity throughout his life. He describes his internal struggle: on one hand, he set demanding moral standards for himself and desired to maintain a highly acceptable public profile. Yet part of him longed for a life of pleasure and folly. Jekyll had followed the socially correct moral path and hid his secret desires, of which he felt ashamed.
The nature of the young Dr. Jekyll’s sins and a complete account of Mr. Hyde’s evil deeds are not revealed in the story. In general, however, the Victorian lifestyle was characterized by severity and rigidity. Many of this era strove to adhere strictly to demanding social codes that some found difficult or impossible to meet. The ideal Victorian was virtuous, pious, self-denying, and decorous. “To be an earnest Christian” during this era, one historian notes, “demanded a tremendous effort. One had to hate the world, the flesh, and the devil, to keep all of God’s commandments exactly” (Houghton, p. 231).
In an era imbued and prosperous with commercial vigor, people sought affluence, respectability, and success. Wealth was especially desirable because it improved a person’s social status, and the era was particularly characterized by the push toward upward mobility. It was possible to enter an upper-class milieu, for example, by buying an estate or a noble title. To be able to afford these trappings usually entailed hard work, which was also valued by the Victorians. Having adopted the Protestant perspective that hard work inherently contained moral worth, the Victorians held work in especially high esteem as a means to commercial success. Idleness was a moral and social sin, and poverty was considered shameful.
Striving to lead pious, respectable lives, the Victorians publicly disdained pastimes that did not lead to self-improvement. In some cases even popular novels and poetry were considered frivolous. Perhaps this attitude played a part in some critics’ originally questioning the “moral intention” of Stevenson’s novel.
The struggle for chastity was another aspect of proper Victorian behavior. Surrounded by religiously inspired feelings of shame and fear, the Victorians considered sex particularly sinful and an improper topic for discussion. Boys were taught to worship women as angelic creations, while as adults, many women were taught to view sex as simply a duty they owed their husbands. Sin and sex were inexorably intertwined.
In the face of such rigid social restrictions, some Victorians complied with social conventions despite the fact that they did not believe in them. Others simply discovered that they could not live up to such stringent ideals, which has led some scholars to believe that, in reality, Victorian life was characterized by immense hypocrisy. These scholars note that Victorians often bowed to conformity, concealing their true natures and tastes and pretending to adhere to social norms. Some Victorians passed themselves off as more pious or moral than they really were. But in reality, pornographic literature and prostitution were common phenomena during the late nineteenth century, showing that some Victorians only pretended to lead chaste lives.
After the publication of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Stevenson protested the public’s tendency to view Hyde as a sexual deviant. He commented that the Jekyll/Hyde phenomenon was meant to illustrate how desires, when ignored for long periods of time, can become perverted. As an adult, Stevenson himself rebelled against current social mores. He not only rejected his own religious upbringing but also recognized much of the hypocrisy of the era. He lived a Bohemian lifestyle, choosing not to become the engineer his father desired him to be. Instead Stevenson traveled widely, dabbled with socialist politics, and married an older American woman who had left her husband, all of which chafed against British Victorian ideals.
Stevenson created The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from a wide variety of sources. He professed to have often been struck by ideas that came to him from dreams inspired by personal muses that he called his “Brownies.” In this case, Stevenson was in financial trouble and desperate to write a story. He writes:
For two days I went racking my brain for a plot of any sort; and on the second night I dreamed the scene at the window, and a scene afterwards split in two, in which Hyde, pursued for some crime, took the powder and underwent the change in the presence of his pursuers.
(Stevenson in Abbey, p. 318)
He wrote down the dream and completed the first draft three days later. His wife, Fanny, who often collaborated with Stevenson, disliked the first draft, so he burned it, but then quickly rewrote the story, incorporating the changes she suggested.
Although this story about the birth of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has reached near-legendary status, in reality Stevenson had been toying with such a plot for many years. “I had long been trying to write a story on this subject, to find a body, a vehicle, for that strong sense of man’s double being which must at times come in upon and overwhelm the mind of every thinking creature” (Stevenson in Abbey, pp. 317-18).
An actual personality of a previous generation, William Brodie, seems to have embodied Stevenson’s fascination with the duality of humans. A deacon of the Guild of Wrights in Edinburgh, Brodie was an honest businessman and upright citizen by day. By night, however, he led a gang of cutthroats who engaged in burglary and other crimes. Brodie was hanged for his crimes in Edinburgh in 1788. Stevenson knew of Brodie and was fascinated enough by his life to write a play about him in the early 1880s. While Stevenson himself did not identify Brodie as the inspiration for the character in his 1886 novel, many critics believe that the double life of Dr. Jekyll stems from this colorful historical figure.
Initially published as a “shilling shocker”—an inexpensive whole story rather than a serialized work—The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde did not sell well until the London Times gave it an excellent review. There-after it became popular with the reading public as well as with many critics. Many were horrified at the subject matter, which inspired fear and dread, and some of the reviews reflected this sentiment. Most critics acknowledged Stevenson’s writing talents, but a number of them questioned the propriety of the subject matter and the novel’s intent. There were readers who considered the story absurd or, as the following critic states, too painful to enjoy.
It is indeed a dreadful book, most dreadful because of a certain moral callousness, a want of sympathy, a shutting out of hope.... It has left such a deeply painful impression on my heart that I do not know how I am ever to turn to it again.
(Symonds in Abbey, p. 315)
Most critics, however, praised the story. One of Stevenson’s most famous reviewers was the novelist Henry James:
Is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde a work of high philosophic intention, or simply the most ingenious and irresponsible of fictions?... It deals with the relation of the baser parts of man to his nobler—of the capacity for evil that exists in the most generous natures, and it expresses these things in a fable which is a wonderfully happy invention.
(James in Abbey, p. 316)
Abbey, Cherie, ed. Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Vol. 14. Detroit: Gale Research, 1987.
Geduld, Harry M., ed. The Definitive Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. New York: Garland, 1983.
McLynn, Frank. Robert Louis Stevenson. London: Hutchinson, 1993.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In The Definitive Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Edited by Harry M. Geduld. New York: Garland, 1983.
Wright, Daniel L. “The Prisonhouse of My Disposition’: A Study of the Psychology of Addiction in ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’.” Studies in the Novel 26, no. 3 (Fall 1994).