The Theme of the Double in Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Robert Louis Stevenson’s book Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of the most famous pieces of literature concerned with the theme of the double. The answer to the riddle proposed by the story is only given at the end of the narration when the strange experiments of the scientist Dr. Jekyll are revealed. At first, the reader is confronted with two characters that seem to be mysteriously related in the story: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, who are visibly connected only through the will left by the former in the possession of Mr. Utterson, through which the entire fortune of Dr Jekyll is supposed to pass over Mr. Hyde, in case of the doctor’s death or ‘disappearance.’ As it shall be seen, Stevenson constructs his story starting from the medical contemporary research regarding the duality of the human brain. However, what is important is that the author rejects the objective voice of science and focuses on the metaphysical implications of man’s double nature. The story thus emphasizes the implications of the medical theory on the spirituality of man, who is torn between two opposed aspects of his personality.
Therefore, as critics have observed, Stevenson builds on the scientific theories and medical evidence of his own time, regarding the dual nature of the human brain. According to Anne Stiles, the Victorian scientists believed that the left and right hemispheres could function independently, each having opposed functions, as the seat of reason and that of emotion respectively: “Variant versions of the dual-brain theory circulating during the nineteenth century posited that the left and right hemispheres of the brain could function independently….The left brain was seen as the logical seat of reason and linguistic ability, contrasting with the emotional right brain.”(Stiles 887) Starting from the medical evidence, Stevenson interprets through the story the complex consequences of this condition on the spirituality of man. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are a drastic representation of this mental split with the resulting moral imbalance: “This drastic mental split has moral consequences for Stevenson’s dual protagonist, ones that reflect contemporary theological debate surrounding the dual-brain theory. More than one Victorian scientist had been struck by the possibility that ‘so far as the brain represents it, the soul must be double.’”(Stiles 888) Kevin Mills also argues that Stevenson’s story is a musing on self-alienation and the schizophrenic split of the human mind in two separate and independent compartments: “Here emerges a sense of change that defies the very idea of subjective continuity; a kind of auto-alienation is implied by which the self is turned into another, a disguised other, the strangest other of all.”(Mills 340) The self is therefore based on an inner conflict, a fragile unity that can be destroyed at any time.
The story can be read as a detective inquiry up to some point, as the thread that connects the events is the mysterious will with its strange specification about doctor Jekyll’s disappearance, instead of death, which already makes the reader aware of the existence of a mystery. The very idea of disappearance suggests a shift into the uncommon, as the material, rational world does not allow for disappearances but only for transformation and death. Actually even this very word “disappearance”, which is so much insisted upon in the story, is a hint at the main theme of the book: appearances and duality. In the posthumous letter left by Dr. Jekyll, the explanation of the mysterious presence of Mr. Hyde is finally given: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are in fact one and the same person, or more exactly the antagonist sides of the same personality: the good and respectful side is incorporated into Doctor Jekyll, while the evil and demonic part is represented by Mr. Hyde, who seems to be nothing else but the result of a ‘magic’ potion created by Dr. Jekyll during his experiments. Thus, on the one hand, the dual nature of human kind is skillfully and completely separated by Stevenson, according to the scientific theory circulating in the nineteenth century : “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.” (Stevenson 12) The implications of this conclusion are, as Stevenson shows them to be, extremely large. Man is inherently divided into two different sides of his own self: the good and the evil. What is more, the division seems to offer an explanation for the clinical cases where one of the two sides of the same character takes precedence over the other, thus resulting in an mental disorder. Kevin Mills thus notes that the coexistence of these two fundamentally opposed tendencies of the human mind results in a conflict, with each of the two separate parts longing for independence and liberation from the unity: “There are repeated suggestions that Jekyll views his alter ego as enjoying an unprecedented freedom in his separation from the unified being. Not only is the drug characterized as a means of escape from the prison house of the compound disposition, but its effects are also the reduction of inhibition… producing what Jekyll depicts as freedom without innocence.”(Mills 342) The two parts of the same self tend towards division, thus splitting the union and becoming different manifestations of the same personality.
A human being is made essentially of good and evil, but Mr. Hyde is all evil, and entirely divided from his good part, Dr. Jekyll. In this manner, the author develops a critique of the metaphysics of appearance, the two individual separate appearances being rooted in the same personality and the same mind. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are two physical entities, that cannot coexist, and that fantastically transform from one into another by the secret potion prepared by Dr. Jekyll during his experiments. Thus, the appearance of the character is associated with very different personalities and social entities: Dr. Jekyll is the respected and trusted doctor, while Mr. Hyde is a very mysterious and controversial character that always incurs the displeasure and even repugnance of the people who see him, not only through his acts but actually from his very appearance that has a very strong impact on the people he meets: “He is not easy to describe. There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something down-right 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. He’s an extraordinary looking man, and yet I really can name nothing out of the way. “(Stevenson 53) Dr. Jekyll represents human reason and therefore the seat of morality, whereas Hyde is, as the name implies it, the obscure side of the human mind, the locus of impulses and emotion. The fact that Jekyll is a scientist is all the more ironic, as Stevenson proposes this imbalance is inherent even in the most respectable members of society.
Mr. Hyde’s appearance in itself is what disturbs the other members of society, and, moreover, Stevenson himself accounts for this appearance by explaining that this particular physical form was the result of the moral and spiritual features that were divided from Dr. Jekyll and incorporated themselves in another human form -that of Mr. Hyde:
“The evil side of my nature, to which I had now transferred the stamping efficacy, was less robust and less developed than the good which I had just deposed. Again, in the course of my life, which had been, after all, nine tenths a life of effort, virtue and control, it had been much less exercised and much less exhausted. And hence, as I think, it came about that Edward Hyde was so much smaller, slighter and younger than Henry Jekyll.” (Stevenson 55)
Thus, a metaphysics of appearance develops: the two different physical forms are in fact the manifestations of the duality of human nature, each corresponding to two different spiritual entities. The physical appearance and the spiritual form are always related: the evil is given a specific form, and society always interprets as such in that particular form. The physical but unreal shape of Mr. Hyde becomes a symbol for evil and crime, and on the other hand, the physical form of Dr. Jekyll is not responsible for Hyde’s wickedness. Thus, Stevenson shows the way society always attributes specific forms to transcendental meanings, and this is also symbolized in the story through the mirror, another form of reflecting the appearances, beyond which lies the “hidden” (the pun of Hyde’s name) nature of things.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, New York: Viking Penguin, 2002
Mills, Kevin. “The Stain on the Mirror: Pauline Reflections in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Christianity and Literature. 53 (3). 2004. 337-347
Stiles, Anne. “Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde and the double brain.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 46 (4).2006. 879-899