Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)

What it’s about: London, the 1860s. Gabriel Utterson, a lawyer, is disturbed when his client Dr Henry Jekyll changes his will to make Mr Edward Hyde his sole beneficiary. Utterson’s friend Richard Enfield relates that months earlier, he encountered the sinister Hyde assaulting a young girl in the street; when forced by police to pay a fine, Mr Hyde produced a cheque signed by Jekyll. Utterson confronts Jekyll, concerned he is being blackmailed, but Jekyll asks that he and Hyde be left alone. Hyde is witnessed beating Sir Danvers Carew to death with a cane, part of which is left at the scene. Utterson leads the police to Hyde’s rooms in Soho, where the other part of the cane is recovered. Utterson recognises the cane as a present he’d once given Jekyll, and visits him. Jekyll, by this time a recluse, shows Utterson a note written by Hyde, in which he apologises for the trouble he has caused. Utterson notices a similarity between Jekyll and Hyde’s handwriting, and concludes that Jekyll has forged the note to protect Hyde. Jekyll reverts to his former sociable self for some months, but suddenly starts refusing visitors. Dr Lanyon, a friend of Utterson, dies of shock after receiving information relating to Jekyll, and gives Utterson a letter to be opened only after Jekyll’s death or disappearance. Two months later, Jekyll’s butler Poole visits Utterson, explaining that Jekyll has secluded himself in his laboratory for weeks. They break into Jekyll’s rooms and find Hyde’s body, dressed in Jekyll’s clothes, apparently dead from self-administered cyanide poisoning. Utterson finds a letter addressed to him from Jekyll. He returns home and reads Lanyon’s letter, in which Lanyon describes witnessing Hyde drinking a serum that turned him into Jekyll. Utterson then reads Jekyll’s letter, in which Jekyll describes his secret life of vice, interest in “man’s dual nature” and his wish to divide his good and evil sides into separate identities and relieve his life “of all that was unbearable“. Jekyll discovers a serum that transforms him into Hyde, the embodiment of his own wickedness, allowing him to indulge in vice without “the grasp of conscience“. Jekyll creates a separate identity for Hyde, furnishing his Soho residence and making him his beneficiary so that they can exist independently of each other. Jekyll starts transforming into Hyde involuntarily, and resolves to stop using the serum. After some months of abstinence, he uses the serum again: Hyde, furious at being caged for so long, kills Carew, then persuades Lanyon to help him transform back again. Eventually the serum fails to work, and Jekyll continues to transform into Hyde, who gains in strength, defacing his books and destroying his property. Realising that he is losing his battle with Hyde, Jekyll writes his confession to Utterson, bringing “the life of that unhappy Jekyll to an end.”

Why it’s a classic: There are some stories that are so resonant in the culture that you feel like you know them, even if you’ve not actually read the original text. Stevenson’s novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (yes, there is no “The” before “Strange” in the title) is one such story, that’s achieved a mythic level of fame: like Hercules, Don Quixote and Faust before them, Jekyll and Hyde have permeated into everyday English, their names now used to describe someone with a two-sided personality who can become dangerous without warning.

This fame isn’t surprising, as Jekyll and Hyde was a hit from the get-go, eerily predictive of the anxieties of Victorian society. Published in England in 1866, it sold over 40,000 copies in its first six months, and tens of thousands of pirated copies in America. Stevenson’s storytelling was praised (and occasionally ridiculed) for its fusion of detective story and Gothic horror, and the skilful withholding of the secret until the final chapter. Just a year after its publication, a theatrical version starring American actor Richard Mansfield was performed in New York to great success. Mansfield brought the production to London in 1888, just days before the Jack the Ripper murders in East London. The press speculated that the murderer must be a “Jekyll-and-Hyde” character, avoiding detection as a gentleman by day and becoming a homicidal maniac at night. Mansfield’s on-stage transformation into Mr Hyde terrified audiences to the point that he was briefly suspected of being the Ripper. 

The story also caught the interest of doctors and researchers in the nascent field of paranormal psychology. Dr Frederick Myers, the author of a series of case histories about “subliminal consciousness”, sent Stevenson a detailed commentary on Jekyll and Hyde, suggesting corrections for subsequent editions, sexologist John Addington Symonds referred to Hyde in his writings about male sexuality. Stevenson’s idea of the “double” correlated with the theories of medical researcher Henry Maudsley, and fashionable quack practices like Mesmerism. In 1891, Freud published his theories of the unconscious, the most persuasive and influential theory of the “double” that Stevenson had described so vividly. At Stevenson’s death, noted journalist W. T. Stead praised the novel, writing “What the public does not yet realise is that the story is more than an allegory. It is a setting forth in the form of an imaginary tale a foreshadowing of the most startling scientific discovery which will probably be fully established in the twentieth century, viz., that the disintegration of personality is not merely possible but is of constant occurrence.”

Unsurprisingly, psychoanalytic readings of the Jekyll and Hyde story have been extremely popular. Jekyll’s secret life of “profound duplicity” is easily diagnosed as the result of sexual repression, and Hyde’s murder of Carew has been read as a kind of Oedipal rage towards repressive father figures. Certainly Jekyll’s “profound duplicity of life” that he hides “with a morbid sense of shame” feel sexual and possibly homosexual in nature. Apart from the murder of Carew, Hyde’s crimes too are never named, leading queer theorists to speculate whether Stevenson is hinting at the love that dare not speak its name”, infamously characterised by Oscar Wilde just a decade later. Despite being rather contemptuous about Stevenson’s work, Wilde was very clearly inspired by Jekyll and Hyde in the writing of The Picture of Dorian Gray: the same splitting of a character’s virtue and vice into separate identities, the same life-and-death struggle between good and evil, and identical scenes of the anti-hero looking with horror at his reflection in the mirror-glass.

Bouquet or Brickbat: A bouquet, liquified into a sinister green-hued serum. Truth be told, I found much of Jekyll and Hyde quite workmanlike and a bit dull. Utterson is stolid and colourless, and not that smart a detective (why didn’t he open the sealed letter from Lanyon when he first had a chance?), and seems an uninspired choice to lead us through the story. The descriptions of London are suitably creepy without being terribly specific, and but for a few local references could just as easily be Edinburgh, Stevenson’s birthplace. Things don’t really get interesting until the extraordinary final two chapters where Jekyll and Hyde are revealed to be the same person. Partially my boredom was due to the corrosive effects of time. Unlike Stevenson’s first readers, I had full knowledge of what the big plot twist was, and accordingly was rather impatient to get to the meat of the story. I’m not the only one, apparently. By 1887, the playwright of the theatrical version could already assume that most theatregoers knew that Jekyll and Hyde were the same person, and so had Jekyll turn into Hyde early in the piece to maintain audience interest. That’s a testament to the popularity of Stevenson’s story, but also about the relatively short-lived shock value of thriller/horror narratives.

Setting aside the need for immediate sensation, there’s much to admire about Stevenson’s narrative structure. For fifty-odd pages, we witness Jekyll’s odd behaviour and Hyde’s crimes play out against a wintry Gothic London (all impenetrable fog and menacing nighttime shadows) without fully understanding the context. It’s only at the end that we can we go back and review what it is we actually know. It’s a much more pleasurable read the second time around, when you can appreciate Stevenson’s layering of clues – the similarity in Jekyll and Hyde’s handwriting, which is mistakenly assumed to be a forgery; Hyde saying to Dr Lanyon “what follows is under the seal of our profession“, a reference to the Hippocratic oath that would make sense if he were Dr Jekyll; and the fact of Jekyll and Hyde never appearing together in the same scene.

Our pleasure is deepened further in Jekyll’s confession, where we understand the contradictory nature of the duality, and Jekyll’s ambivalence about confronting his other self. Initially, Hyde is merely the separation of “lower elements in my soul” – impulses that exist within Jekyll and that have already driven him to a life of duplicity. His first sight of himself as Hyde provokes “something strange in my sensations, something indescribably new, and…. incredibly sweet. I felt younger, lighter, happier in body” and of immediate recognition: “I was conscious of no repugnance, rather of a leap of welcome“. As Hyde begins to commit his crimes, Jekyll’s language is ambiguous, describing his “excursions” into “undignified pleasures“, and experiencing “a kind of wonder at my vicarious depravity“. Who exactly is the “I” here? Hyde, who enjoys and rejoices in his crimes, or Jekyll, knowing that only Hyde is guilty and that he (the doctor) is “woke again to his good qualities seemingly unimpaired“, and even sate his conscience by “mak[ing] haste to… undo the evil done.” Hyde becomes a convenient alter ego, who allows Jekyll to fulfil his pre-existing desires. When he abstains from the serum, he becomes “an ordinary secret sinner” again, giving himself up to “the assaults of temptation“. Provided that Jekyll could control his other self, one senses that this neat division of labour might have carried on forever. Pointedly, it’s not Jekyll’s “horror of my other self” that prompts him to commit suicide, but merely the loss of control over the timing of his transformations, and Hyde’s growing power over and antagonism towards him.

Jekyll’s suicide is especially intriguing in terms of his symbiotic relationship to Hyde. In his confession, Jekyll refers to killing himself as a way to stop Hyde, but he refers to his “good” self in the third person (“that unhappy Jekyll”), as if Hyde was speaking, with plans to murder Jekyll. Presumably the cyanide was taken while he was Jekyll, but when the body is discovered it resembles Hyde. Was this a last-minute attempt by Hyde to “release himself at the last moment” and seize control? Or is Jekyll admitting here that Hyde was the truest part of his nature, and “Jekyll” merely a facade that should be thrown away? Many interpretations of Jekyll and Hyde cast it as a morality tale about the dangers of succumbing to temptation and sin. In my view, the message is far more ambiguous – Jekyll isn’t an innocent beset by the forces of evil, but someone who discovers the essential darkness of his own nature. Stevenson’s refusal to explain his own meaning, and his resistance to following any clear moral code, is what gives Jekyll and Hyde its enduring power and readability.

Quotable Quote: “With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two. I say two, because the state of my own knowledge does not pass beyond that point. Others will follow, others will outstrip me on the same lines; and I hazard the guess that man will ultimately be known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous and independent denizens…. [It was] in my own person, that I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; 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….”

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