How does Stevenson explore the theme of duality in the novella ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ and how does this reflect the time in which it was written?
‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ is a novella which still captures the interest of readers worldwide. During the 19th Century, it was devoured by Victorian readers who were intrigued by the ideas it proposed. Human duality particularly interested them; they were fascinated with the idea of the doppelganger. The duality and hypocrisy of the characters reflected life in Victorian society. Outwardly respectable upper-class gentlemen often had a hidden darker side, perhaps visiting East End prostitutes. Other novels written at the time such as ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, ‘Dracula’ and ‘Frankenstein’ also reflect the contrasting aspects of human nature.
At the time that ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ was written, one of the most popular genres was Gothic. This included certain tell-tale features, such as the supernatural, ghosts, haunted houses, madness, secrets, doubles and castles. The novella has some of these, for examples doubles and secrets. Stephenson originally dreamed the story – ‘a fine bogey tale’ – and, with his wife’s encouragement, wrote the novella to explore the darker side of human nature. He in particular believed in the duality of human nature, with everyone consisting of two opposing sides. The personality and actions of Mr Hyde may have represented Stevenson’s darker desires, such as his visits to local brothels.
The idea of a part of you that had no conscience and simply acted on basic desires both scared and interested the reader, encouraging them to look deeper into their own souls and wonder about their hidden sides. Some of the other themes in the novella also reflected Victorian society. The secrecy and hypocrisy shown throughout the story are as relevant now as they were at the time, which may account for why the novella is still read with interest. There are also many biblical parallels, particularly relating to the devil, which reflects the strong religious beliefs held by the Victorians.
Part of the power of the novella is given through its narration. The chapters are narrated mainly by Mr Utterson, a lawyer, with the final two as documents – a letter and a statement – from Dr Lanyon and Dr Jekyll, two scientists. These three characters are all respected professionals, which add a sense of credibility to the story. When, in the first chapter, Mr Utterson asks Mr Enfield “and you never asked about – the place with the door?”, this tells the reader that there is some mystery surrounding that door. It is important that this is heard from him, for Dr Jekyll would of course recognise his own back door. This adds to the mystery because Utterson’s position in society would mean he is likely to be well informed, so the reader is left wondering why he doesn’t know about the door. The descriptions of Mr Hyde from Utterson and Enfield must also come from someone other than Jekyll.
Jekyll’s telling of part of the story – his final confession – is important because it is the first time that we see it stated unequivocally that “Edward Hyde was…pure evil”. The facts and reasoning behind his actions come straight from Jekyll, which gives us insight into his feelings. Lanyon’s section is also important in that it gives an opposing view. The duality of the contrast between the two scientists also contributes to the general theme. It also provokes the curiosity of the reader, who wants to know more about Jekyll’s transformation.
The presentation of Jekyll and Lanyon’s narratives as official documents also adds to the authenticity. It makes the views given seem more believable. It also shows the difficulty that Victorians had talking about matters such as these, so found it easier to write things down, as well as referring back to the need for secrecy – the documents can only be read after the deaths of their writers.
The setting also contributes to the recurring theme of duality. Victorian London itself showed this; there was the wealthy West End, with huge houses, theatre and carriages, and just a few miles away, the poverty stricken East End, with whole families living in one squalid room.
The duality of the two doors to Jekyll’s house is reflective of the two sides of his personality. The door used by Dr Jekyll has “freshly painted shutters, well-polished brasses and general cleanliness”. This suggests that the owner cares about appearances and we know that Jekyll is very keen to maintain a respectable appearance. The “brasses” also remind the reader that this is an upper-class area. It also suggests a care about his belongings.
Contrastingly, the laboratory door primarily used by Mr Hyde “showed no window …discoloured wall … blistered and distained”. This shows an indifference to appearances, suggesting that the owner does not care what people think, which we know to be true of Mr Hyde. The one nasty part of Jekyll’s affluent house also reflects Hyde as the nasty part of Jekyll’s general good nature. The absence of a window makes the reader wonder if the occupier is anti-social and does not wish to look out on the pleasant and friendly street – again this symbolizes Mr Hyde. The appearance of the house is that of dirt and carelessness which would repel passers-by, just as Hyde’s apparent ‘deformity’ repels people. It also represents Hyde’s uncaring personality.
The street onto which the laboratory door opens also shows a duality. During the daytime it “drove a thriving trade”. The use of the word “thriving” suggests a busy, bustling, noisy crowd. Conversely, at night the street becomes “very solitary” and “very silent”. The word “solitary” seems to personify London, making it into a person who perhaps prefers their own company. This personification is continued with the mention of “the low growl of London”, which makes the city sound like a hostile animal waiting to pounce.
This combined with the silence, males the street sound very ominous and threatening, a direct contrast to the friendly atmosphere of the daytime. This is reinforced when London is described as having street after street…all as empty as a church”. This simile introduces the idea that it may be echoey, cold and lonely, whilst the use of the word “church” introduces religion again. The emptiness of “street after street” suggests that there is no one within sight or earshot, which makes the reader wonder if something bad is going to happen.
The fog which descends on the city – “a great chocolate coloured pall” – also represents the moods of the story; unsettled with parts hidden from view as if under a blanket of fog. It also helps with the duality – London in the murky fog is a very different place to London on a bright sunny morning.
The duality which is present throughout every aspect of the novella helps to add to the intrigue of the story. The reader wants to find out the truth behind the different sides of the story, and this persuades them to continue through the novella to solve the mystery. Henry Jekyll describes himself as “fond of the respect of the wise and good”. This suggests that he counts himself as belonging amongst those, and he wants to do something to gain their respect.
This suggests he has quite a high view of himself, perhaps he believes he deserves their respect. This is also a message given when he speaks of his “imperious desire to carry my head high”. The use of the word “imperious” implies that he sees himself as and emperor, superior to the other citizens of London. It appears that he does not believe here is much wrong with him the way he is. This is shown when he says “the worst of my faults was a certain impatient gaiety”. This also suggests that he has a somewhat undignified wish to be joyful, which Mr Hyde fulfils in his own way.
This view of himself is not necessarily shared by others. Dr Lanyon describes him as an “old school-companion”. This suggests that whilst they went to school together, as this is the most Lanyon can say of him, they have seen little of each other recently – perhaps he is not as social and respected as he believes. Utterson is worried about him, which he shown when he says “he [Jekyll] is in deep waters”, This shows that Utterson is aware of part of the situation and can tell that there is something worrying Jekyll ,which makes him anxious as he is a close friend of Jekyll.
There are clues in the novella as to why Jekyll created the potion to transform himself into Hyde. He writes in his confession “life might be relieved of all that was unbearable”. His high quality of life makes the reader wonder what Jekyll sees as unbearable – is there something he has not revealed? He also has another apparent reason. This is demonstrated when he writes of the “temptation of a discovery so singular and profound”. This description suggests that he wants to discover something completely new, which would make him famous – is this what he craves?
The character of Hyde is a contrast to Jekyll’s restrained behaviour. It demonstrates the secret side of many members of Victorian society and the hypocrisy of the time. Hyde’s behaviour could be intended to represent the clandestine behaviours of important people such as Dr Jekyll.
When Jekyll is first transformed into Hyde, he notes that “I was conscious… of a leap of welcome”. This shows that to him, Mr Hyde feels like a normal part of himself, towards whom he feels welcoming. This ‘leap of welcome’ may also represent the mental leap he makes as he realises that Hyde can give him freedom to do as he pleases.
He also found that when he assumed the appearance of Hyde he “could afford to laugh at suspicion”. This shows that he enjoys being able to do as he please without the risk of being recognised. He also finds it humorous to watch peoples’ efforts to trace the elusive Mr Hyde, who, of course, cannot be found. Whilst admitting that “the pleasures… were… undignified”, he is apparently reluctant to use stronger language. A possible reason for this is that he feels that “undignified” is acceptable, whereas more descriptive words about his behaviour would not be.
However, this view of Mr Hyde is in complete contrast with how others see him. Mr Utterson describes him as “pale and dwarfish”. The word “pale” suggests that he appears unhealthy or ghostly, which provokes fear and disgust in those who see him. “Dwarfish” suggests that he is small, although this in no way seems to make him less intimidating, which shows just how strong the repulsion must be. The small stature may reflect that he is the less evolved side of Jekyll – he is closer to the size of a monkey. There is also a direct contrast with the description of Jekyll as “a large, well-made…man”. This reflects the obvious differences between the two men, a physical embodiment of their psychological differences. Upon meeting him, Utterson also remarks on a “disgust, loathing and fear”. These three words seem to spark off each other and together have a greater impact than one would have had alone.
As Hyde, Jekyll finds that “none could come near me” This reinforces the reader’s picture of the repulsion people feel upon meeting him. It appears that all who encounter him have a strong feeling that he is somehow disfigured, which they cannot explain. This, of course, is explained by Jekyll who says “Edward Hyde… was pure evil”.
There are three aspects to the contrast between Jekyll and Hyde. The first, purely physical, is shown in that whilst Jekyll merely desires to act on his “undignified” impulses, Hyde has the opportunity to fulfil these pleasures, and others, without the risk of being recognised. This may explain some of Jekyll’s reasoning in changing regularly into Mr Hyde. There is also a moral conflict between Jekyll’s two sides. He knows that if he remains alive, Mr Hyde will take over and he will lose his own personality and appearance.
The only option left to him, therefore, is to take his own life, so whichever way, he will be destroyed. This suicide, according to religious beliefs of the time, would send him to Hell – something which regularly comes up in conjunction with Mr Hyde. The final conflict is the social one. The idea of a respectable professional such as Henry Jekyll associating with a creature such as Edward Hyde would shock his friends and tarnish his all-important reputation, although not as much as if Jekyll did as Hyde does, or if his friends knew the true situation. This is made especially clear as Utterson is shocked and baffled when he finds out the startling truth.
There are several instances throughout the novella which associate Hyde with the devil. Utterson remarks “I read Satan’s signature upon a face”. This, relating to the strong religious beliefs of the era, emphasises the dreadful and evil appearance of Mr Hyde. It also partly explains the repulsion felt by all – they see that there is some thing ungodly about him. Enfield, too, describes “the man… with a kind of black sneering coolness… carrying it off, sir, really like Satan”.
As well as the Satan reference, the “black sneering coolness” described provokes hatred of Hyde by both Enfield and the reader because of Hyde’s arrogance. The child trampling is described as “hellish to see”, which shows how horrible it was, with connotation of terror and suffering, both of which apply to the child. When Mr Utterson approaches him, he shrinks back “with a hissing intake of breath”. The “hissing” makes him sound like a snake, unpleasant enough by itself, but a snake is also the form taken by Satan in the Garden of Eden. This could represent Hyde’s tempting Jekyll to do things he would not otherwise have considered.
Hyde’s actions also shock the reader. He starts with “an act of cruelty to a child” and moves on to murdering Sir Danvers Carew with “apelike fury” and “a storm of blows”. The use of the word “apelike” suggests that Hyde is the less evolved form of Jekyll. This is particularly relevant as at this time Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution (published in 1859) were well known.
Jekyll’s view of these actions changes over time. He writes that the murder of Carew “had been a tragic folly”. This demonstrates that he realises he is losing control of Hyde and doing foolish and risky things. He also mentions a “duality of purpose”, acknowledging the recurring theme of the novella. He refers to Hyde as “monstrous” and “that child of Hell”, once more mentioning Satan and showing more duality – where at first he welcomed Hyde; he now seems to despise him, with good reason.
Whilst in the character of Jekyll, he tries to make up for Hyde’s dreadful deeds. The paying of the cheque to the family of the child is the first stage, although this is conducted whilst in the persona of Hyde. Of course, Jekyll will later find that he must pay with more than money for his foolishness. He also goes out of his way to be “beneficent and innocent”, trying to be the opposite of the selfish and evil Mr Hyde. It also appears that he is giving as if to counteract what Hyde takes from society. He becomes “surrounded by friends”, as if trying to demonstrate that he is sociable and friendly, in direct contrast to Mr Hyde, who would be incapable, if he tried, of making friends. His breaking down of his self-enforced seclusion may represent his dealing with other problems and trying to avoid the biggest – Mr Hyde’s gradual takeover of his personality and appearance.
I believe that Stephenson succeeded in his purpose of exploring the darker reaches of human nature. He also includes a moral of the story; that each person has two sides, and we must be careful to keep the balance between them if we do not wish to meet an unpleasant end, like Dr Jekyll. Of course, modern society dictates that we experience the novella differently to Victorian readers.
Before I read the novella, I already knew the vague storyline as it is part of the popular consciousness. Our society is also very different, particularly that we, in general, hold our religious beliefs more loosely and accept more widely things which were concealed in Stephenson’s time. However, for all that, I believe that the novella is still effective in being a ‘bogey tale’ and in getting its darker message across. It also encourages the readers to look deep within themselves, just as it did when it was first published.