"The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" was first published in 1886, and was written by Edinburgh author Robert Louis Stevenson. It remains one of the most famous gothic novels in English literature, and has had such an impact on the public, that 'Jekyll and Hyde' has now become a common term to describe someone with two sides to their personality.
The play centres on the duality of man, and the constant battle between good and evil within both individuals, and society as a whole. Henry Jekyll is a seemingly respectable scientist in Victorian London, although a series of mysterious events begin to link him to the actions of the savage Edward Hyde. The story is told mainly from the perspective of Gabriel Utterson, a lawyer friend of Jekyll, who investigates the curious connection between the two men.
With its horrifying conclusion, and violent action, "Jekyll and Hyde" was designed to both scare and excite Victorian society, as well as provide a wider message about the dangers of science, and messing with nature.
“The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” is an 1885 novella (short novel) by Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson was an Edinburgh writer, and the story was inspired by the exploits of Deacon Brodie, a respectable figure in the city by day, and a criminal by night. Stevenson based his story on a nightmare he had while recovering from an illness.
The story of Henry Jekyll is fundamentally concerned with man’s meddling with nature. The battle between science and religion was at its height in the late nineteenth century, particularly after Charles Darwin published ‘The Origin of the Species’ in 1859. This outlined the theory of evolution, and therefore challenged the biblical view of the world, particularly the idea that God created the world in seven days. Darwin’s theories were extremely controversial, and much of Victorian society were polarised by the battle. Stevenson felt that man should not meddle with the power of nature, and Henry Jekyll is a warning to those who do.
Victorian society was also interested in the nature of human psychology, and particularly the origins of evil. For example, the popular ‘science’ of phrenology involved predicting people’s behaviour based on the shape of their heads. The Jack the Ripper murders took place shortly after the publication of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’, and the rumours about the identity of the murderer centred on whether someone upper class and wealthy could have committed these crimes. Victorian society was extremely concerned with morality, and respectability, although were also morbidly interested in gruesome murders and grisly stories. Stevenson’s story comments on both the nature of evil (and the duality of man) whilst also appealing to the morbid interests of the Victorian people.
A key point in reading Jekyll and Hyde is that it was serialised (published in weekly sections) rather than as a complete book. The ending of each chapter reveals a clue about the ultimate ending of the story, or leaves the reader on a cliffhanger. For a modern reader, the story of Jekyll and Hyde is so well known that we know all along what is happening, but for a Victorian reader, this would not have been the case. To truly appreciate the storytelling, keep in mind that the Victorian reader did not know the ending of the story, and how dramatic that it must have seemed.Back to top
The story begins with a respected lawyer, Mr. Utterson, walking with his relative, Enfield. Enfield tells Utterson about how he saw a strange and horrible figure called Mr. Hyde trample a young girl, and then attempt to pay off the relatives with a cheque signed by someone else. Although Utterson does not like gossip, and refuses to talk about the story more, he is intrigued by Mr. Hyde, particularly since one of his clients – Henry Jekyll – has just changed his will to leave everything to Mr. Hyde. Utterson thinks that Hyde must be blackmailing Jekyll, and has nightmares based on Hyde, despite having never seen him.
Utterson visits his friend Dr. Lanyon to ask him about Jekyll. Lanyon says that Jekyll and he fell out, as Jekyll was meddling with science in a way that Lanyon did not approve. Utterson searches for Hyde, and eventually tracks him to a building, which turns out to be a laboratory attached to Jekyll’s house. Utterson is appalled by Hyde, although Hyde gives Utterson his address. After a dinner party, Utterson talks to Jekyll about Hyde. Jekyll is noticeably shaken, and tells Utterson to leave the matter alone.
One year later, Hyde is seen beating to death a Member of Parliament called Sir Danvers Carew. The police ask Utterson for information, and Utterson leads them to Hyde’s address. They find Hyde’s apartment empty, and the case seems to go away. Utterson asks Jekyll about Hyde, and Jekyll assures Utterson that he has not seen Hyde for some time, and has broken off contact with him. Jekyll gives Utterson a letter, which he says is from Hyde, which apologises for all the trouble, and promises Jekyll that Hyde will never see him again. However, Utterson remains suspicious, particularly given that Hyde’s handwriting is the same as Jekyll’s.
Although everything seems initially settled after this, suddenly things become more serious. Jekyll refuses any visitors, and Dr. Lanyon dies, after receiving a shock from Henry Jekyll (although the shock is not explained). Lanyon gives Utterson a letter, only to be opened after the death of Henry Jekyll. Utterson and Enfield go out for a walk, and they see Jekyll at the window of his laboratory. They begin a conversation, when suddenly Jekyll has a terrified look, closes the window, and ends the conversation. Not long after this, Jekyll’s butler, Dr. Poole comes to see Utterson to explain that Jekyll has locked himself in his laboratory, and the voice that is coming from the inside no longer sounds like Jekyll’s.
Utterson and Poole go to Jekyll’s house, where they eventually decide to break down the door to the laboratory. When they get in, they find Hyde’s body lying on the ground, wearing Jekyll’s clothes. Next to the body is a letter than Jekyll wrote to Utterson, promising to explain everything.
Before reading the letter from Jekyll, Utterson reads the letter that Lanyon gave him. Lanyon writes that his death was a result of seeing Mr. Hyde drink a potion, and then turn into Jekyll. The letter from Henry Jekyll explains how he had been searching for a potion to separate his evil side from his good. Eventually he was successful, and was able to turn into Hyde. Although Hyde was initially happy at becoming Hyde, because he was completely free from morality, he eventually became shocked and appalled by Hyde, and more worryingly, began to turn into Hyde against his will.
The strength of Hyde soon began to overtake Jekyll, and despite fighting the urge to transform, one night he gave in to temptation, and turned into Hyde. It was then that he beat Danvers Carew to death. After this, Jekyll promised himself that he would stop becoming Hyde. This was successful for a short while, although eventually Jekyll turned into Hyde during the day, when Jekyll was awake. It was clear Hyde was getting stronger.
As the police hunt for Hyde continued, Hyde sought the help of Dr. Lanyon to help him turn into Jekyll. However, Lanyon’s shock at the transformation led to Lanyon’s death. Jekyll realised that Hyde was becoming stronger and stronger as the transformations became more common, and needed more and more potion to reverse. It was at this point that ‘the incident at the window’ took place. Jekyll also realised that a key ingredient in the original potion had been contaminated, and therefore that he could never recreate the exact mixture. Jekyll knew that this meant that Hyde would eventually take over, and wrote the letter to Dr. Lanyon effectively knowing that Jekyll would exist no more.Back to top
Duality of Man
At the very heart of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ is the fact that man is made up of both good and evil elements. Traditional readings of the story talk about Jekyll being the epitome of good, and Hyde representing evil. However, we can challenge whether this is really the case. Hyde has no concept of morality, and is therefore ‘amoral’ (without morals). Also, Jekyll’s first reaction at turning into Hyde is a realisation of the ease with which he can commit crimes. Jekyll’s clear understanding of morality means that he chooses his actions (at least at the beginning) and is therefore more immoral. It is clear to see, however, that within man are both evil and good elements, and this is the core message of the story. Stevenson also effectively shows that the battle between good and evil not only exists in society, but within each person. Most importantly, it is the ‘amoral’ and not the ‘respectable’ half that is stronger – Stevenson is clearly showing that man must control his most basic instincts if he is to remain sane.
Appearance and Reality
The difference between appearance and reality is one of the most important aspects of the story. In particular, this is symbolised by the separation of public and private. Jekyll is unable to keep his most private desires private after he creates Hyde. It is important that Jekyll’s decision when he realises he can’t control Hyde is to barricade himself in his laboratory. The symbolism of Utterson breaking down the door is important in breaking the barrier between public and private – it is only by doing this that he solves the mystery. The recurring use of doors as symbols is crucial in explaining Stevenson’s point about Victorian morality. Respectability is about appearing moral, not necessarily about being moral. Jekyll doesn’t care about actually being moral until Hyde gets out of control. Before this, he uses Hyde as a way of committing disrespectable acts while still appearing to be moral.
There are three types of behaviour explained in ‘Jekyll and Hyde’. The first is moral behaviour. This refers to characters behaving in a way typical of Victorian London. This means respecting religion, and appearing ‘respectable’ to the rest of society. When Hery Jekyll wishes to end Hyde’s control over him, he becomes ‘philanthropic’ (charitable), which is typical of moral actions. Utterson is also shown to be a morally sound character, who is concerned with doing the right thing, rather than just appearing to be respectable. The second type of behaviour is being amoral. This refers to actions of those who don’t know about the rules of society. Although Hyde is commonly regarded as being evil, in reality, he is more accurately ‘amoral’. The acts he commits are bad, although since he shows no awareness of moral rules, it is difficult to say that he is bad. The final type of behaviour is immoral behaviour. This is where characters who are aware of the rules of society deliberately do not follow them, and deliberately cause harm to others. Jekyll’s desire to use Hyde to commit evil acts can be seen as immoral behaviour.
Strangely for a story that is so concerned with defending nature (against science) ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ has a deeply unnatural element to it. However, the key narrator of the action – Utterson – is a deeply rational and logical man, and this contrasts with the unnatural actions of Henry Jekyll. One of Stevenson’s greatest achievements in writing ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ is the way that he balances the natural and the unnatural. The way in which Utterson (and to a lesser extent, Enfield) learn about Hyde is from a deeply logical perspective, which mirrors the way the reader reacts to the unveiling story. Indeed, the fact that Utterson is so rational makes the revelation at the end even more shocking. Stevenson foreshadows the reader’s reaction at the link between Jekyll and Hyde with the death of Dr. Lanyon, which comes when he sees Hyde turn into Jekyll. This creates a sense of dramatic tension for the reader.
Good versus Evil
The battle between good and evil is one of the oldest literary devices, with examples existing throughout literature (including the Bible). Victorian society was obsessed with the idea of being moral, although also retained an interest in gruesome details of murders, and other examples of evil. The Victorians were also interested in the origin of evil, particularly as they began to explore other areas of the world, where Christian ‘civilisation’ was not present. London itself acts as a character in the story, symbolising the battle between good and evil. London is shown to be a bustling city, and yet seems dark and imposing. The city is both the heart of civilisation and yet savage. The acts of violence that Hyde commits are particularly ‘evil’ to a Victorian mind – they either involve a young child, or a respectable Member of Parliament. The barbarity of Hyde’s acts shock a Victorian audience, although also keep them interested in the shocking outcome.
Violence is a common theme in Victorian society, although very rarely does it involve respected members of society. In the case of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’, the reader is appalled not only by the nature of the violence (trampling and beating to death), but also the innocence of the victims. Neither victim did anything to provoke Hyde, and therefore it seems all the more shocking. The innocence of the victims contrasts with the brutality of the violence, and this makes ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ a particularly shocking tale. What is even more shocking is that Hyde apparently enjoys this violence. There are also allegories towards addiction, particularly as Jekyll attempts to ‘give up’ transforming into Hyde, and yet seems to have a lust for violence. It is after Jekyll has abstained from turning into Hyde that he murders Danvers Carew – clearly fighting his addiction to violence is a dangerous tactic.Back to top
Much of the power of the story of Jekyll and Hyde comes from the fact that it is a story of contrasts. Stevenson makes use of juxtaposition (deliberate contrast) in order to emphasise his core points. The core juxtapositions within the novella are between science and nature, as well as between the natural and the unnatural. Good and evil are also shown in contrast, although the battle between morality, immorality and the amoral is not as much a juxtaposition, certainly there is a battle between innocence and violence. The dramatic nature of the juxtapositions within the story is also mirrored by the dramatic juxtaposition between Jekyll and Hyde.
Stevenson uses a range of narrative structures to tell his story, and this gives it a richly layered style. The initial telling of the story is a third-person narrative via the perspective of Utterson. He describes the tale from a relatively neutral perspective, as emphasised by his own rationalism and logic. At the beginning of the story, we are told only about Utterson, and little about Jekyll or Hyde. This keeps the suspense of the story intact, and hooks the reader into the mystery.
The second telling of the story is through Dr. Lanyon’s story. This is first-person narrative (Lanyon explains the story as he saw it). Although this gives us additional insight into the mystery, and tells us of the link between Jekyll and Hyde, we still are left with some questions about Jekyll’s motivations. In addition, the fact that Lanyon’s letter is posthumous (read after his death) makes this even more dramatic.
The final telling of the story is through another first-person narrative, through the letter of Dr. Jekyll. This explains the whole story, and provides an insight into Jekyll’s motivations throughout. Although this is the section of the story where the reader learns the harsh truth about Jekyll, the fact that this section is told from his perspective, perhaps means that he remains a sympathetic character. Again, this is a posthumous letter, therefore heightening the sense of shock – particularly in the final line, where Jekyll talks of his own death.
Symbolism of the City
The role of London in the story is critical, and London operates as a character of its own. Like the human characters, London is shown to have elements of good and evil. At key moments in the narrative, the city helps to create an atmosphere, either with the darkness of the alleyways, or the fog that lies in the streets. London mirrors Jekyll and Hyde’s battle, most obviously shown through the fact that Jekyll has a house on a respectable London Square, where Hyde has an apartment in Soho, which is far less respectable. London was, at the time, the centre of the British Empire, and therefore supposed to be the most civilised city in the world. This appearance of respectability was undermined by the violence, the poverty, and the immorality within.
Darkness and Light
Darkness and Light is intrinsically linked with the idea of good and evil. Stevenson uses pathetic fallacy (where the weather represents the tone of the story) at key moments, using the fog as a way to obscure the city, and make it seem more alien. This symbolises the sense of mystery around Hyde, particularly given that Utterson is haunted by nightmares of a faceless Hyde. Doors also symbolise the barrier between darkness and light, and the key action of the novel comes when Utterson and Poole cut down the door to Jekyll’s library – thus letting in the light, and helping to solve the mystery.Back to top
“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; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point.” (Enfield – Chapter 1)
This quote is the earliest mention of Hyde in the story. Importantly, Hyde is described only in terms of the emotions he creates, rather than anything specific. This gives us the first hint at the mystery of Hyde. Also, the fact that Hyde is met with such revulsion shows that there is something impure and unnatural about him. Enfield, who is a logical and rational man, in unable to understand Hyde, which sets the novella up as a mystery, and piques the reader’s interest.
“It was on the moral side, and 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; and from an early date . . . I had learned to dwell with pleasure, as a beloved daydream, on the thought of the separation of these elements.” (Henry Jekyll, Chapter 10)
This quote highlights the very heart of the novel – Henry Jekyll’s battle to find and then control the two halves of his own personality. In addition, this shows the fact that Jekyll is messing with human nature, something that Stevenson fundamentally opposes. The joy that Jekyll feels in thinking about separating the two halves of his personality is mirrored by his joy on becoming Hyde for the first time. This later juxtaposes with the horror that befalls Jekyll as he realises the consequences of his actions.
"I was slowly losing hold of my original and better self, and becoming slowly incorporated with my second and worse."(Henry Jekyll – Chapter 10)
This quote highlights Jekyll’s growing realisation that Hyde is taking over his body. Although Hyde is smaller than Jekyll (as indicated by the fact that Jekyll’s clothes are too big for Hyde), Hyde is more powerful. At the beginning, Jekyll turns into Hyde only on taking the potion, and only very occasionally. Eventually, he needs the potion to turn back into Jekyll, and he needs it very often. This is a crucial difference.
"'O God!' I screamed, and 'O God!' again and again; for there before my eyes--pale and shaken, and half fainting, and groping before him with his hands, like a man restored from death--there stood Henry Jekyll!" (Dr. Lanyon – Chapter 9)
This is the key revelation in the story, where Hyde turns into Jekyll for the first time in the witness of another character. Importantly, the shock of this event kills Dr. Lanyon. Dr. Lanyon’s use of ‘Oh God!’ shows the horror he feels, which is particularly shocking for a man of science. The use of religious imagery also emphasises Lanyon’s (and Stevenson’s) belief that Hyde is messing with the natural order. The mention of death also ultimately foreshadows the ending of the novel, when Jekyll is not restored from death, but killed by Hyde.
Although Jekyll is often seen as the ‘good’ half of Edward Hyde, in reality, Hyde only exists because Jekyll has dark urges. He confesses at the end of the novella that Hyde emerged when Jekyll was feeling pride and arrogance, and therefore is a product of negative emotions. Jekyll appears to be a respectable member of Victorian society, although the fact that he messes with the natural order, and attempts to use Hyde to commit immoral acts suggests a darkness to his character. Stevenson doesn’t reveal too many details about Jekyll, and we only learn about him through Utterson’s description. This makes him seem less like a specific individual, and serves Stevenson’s wider point about evil being present in every person. Jekyll is also guilty of hubris, as he creates Hyde and thinks he can control him, which ultimately leads to Jekyll’s death.
Stevenson designed Utterson to be as neutral as possible, so that his telling of the story does not detract from the core events. Given that he sees and hears some truly shocking things, he does not get passionate or angry at any point, nor does he ever indulge in gossip. Utterson is the stereotypical ‘respectable’ Victorian – he is concerned with reputation, although is charitable to those who are suffering. He is also unwilling to upset the natural order. This is seen particularly when Poole brings him to Jekyll’s house, and Utterson is immediately concerned with all the servants standing around, rather than the real mystery at hand. Utterson is a deeply logical and rational man, which means that he is intrigued by the link between Jekyll and Hyde, but is not able to solve the mystery because of its unnatural explanation.
Dr. Lanyon is a more important character for what happens to him, rather than who he is. We don’t learn much about Lanyon, other than the fact that he falls out with Jekyll over his scientific experiments. Lanyon criticises Jekyll for messing with nature, although Lanyon refers to it as being ‘unscientific’. Despite the breakdown in their relationship, Jekyll still trusts Lanyon with his secret, although this is what ultimately leads to Lanyon’s death. Lanyon is a victim of his logic and rationalism, and his physical demise seems to be linked with his brain being unable to cope with Jekyll’s experiments. Lanyon’s letter to Utterson is a sad one, in which Lanyon says that although he dedicated his life to learning, some things are better left unknown. Lanyon has essentially decided that life is not worth living, particularly when unexplainable horrors such as Edward Hyde exist.Back to top
A key turning point in the action comes in Chapter 8, when Utterson and Poole decide to break down the door to Jekyll’s laboratory. This has a huge symbolic as well as literal significance. Not only does it result in the finding of the body of Hyde, but also the letter that explains the entire story. The idea of cutting down a door into a private room is also important in highlighting the fact that Utterson has broken the final barrier of Jekyll’s privacy. The scene also shows Stevenson’s skill at creating an atmosphere of tension and of fear. The reader is drawn into the action, peering behind Utterson into the laboratory.
Unlike most mysteries, ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ does not conclude with one neat exposition (a revealing of the mystery), but instead leaves this for the reading of the letters. This spreads the drama out over the final chapters, and does not give the reader the full explanation until the very end.
Utterson, as a man of logic and rationalism is still unable to solve the mystery even when presented with the body of Hyde in Jekyll’s library. Crucially, Utterson does not initially want to break down the door, as he believes in respecting Jekyll’s property. In addition, Utterson is also clearly worried as to what he will find on the other side of the door. This is representative of the Victorian desire to protect privacy, as well as the feeling that there are dark secrets in even the most respectable homes.
The violence with which Utterson and Poole break down the door shows that the shocking nature of Hyde’s crimes have driven moral people to desperate ends. Once the door has been hacked open, there is a sense of foreboding as Utterson and Poole look into the laboratory. The laboratory is Jekyll’s private space, and therefore is at the heart of the mystery. The reader is drawn into the action by their desire, along with Utterson, to see what has happened in the laboratory. Finding Hyde’s body in Jekyll’s clothes is a shocking revelation, but one that only causes more questions. The reader is still hooked, perhaps even more so.Back to top
Click on the image above, or here to read a BBC article all about the life of Robert Louis Stevenson. This will give you a great background for understanding what drove Stevenson in writing 'Jekyll and Hyde', and the article also contains some good analysis of the key themes in Stevenson's work.
The video above is all about the impact of Edinburgh on Stevenson's writing. In particular, it will help you to answer atmosphere questions, but also gives a sense of the historical context, and particularly the gothic aspects of the text.
Click on the image above, or here to learn about what constitutes a Gothic text. This will allow you to answer genre questions more easily. If you're feeling super keen, click here to learn about the controversy over Charles Darwin's 'The Origin of the Species', which played a crucial role in shaping Victorian attitudes to both science and morality.
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