“Strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” is a short novel by Robert Louis Stevenson published in 1886. It tells the story of a strange Dr Jekyll who seems to know an evil Mr Hyde, responsible for all kinds of crimes throughout London.
It is said Stevenson first wrote the story in one night and then burnt it, then rewrote it again. It is also said he dreamt a few scenes of the story before getting on with it shortly after waking up from a nightmare.
The action is set in London. Gabriel John Utterson is enjoying a walk with his friend Richard Enfield. The latter tells him about a certain Mr Hyde, whom he saw one night trampling on a little girl. When asked by Utterson to describe the man, Enfield says: “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 elsewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point…”. Then Utterson learns his friend Dr Jekyll has recently changed his will to make Hyde his beneficiary. He finally meets Hyde, and is surprised by his revolting physical appearance. Utterson now believes Hyde might be exerting some kind of pressure on Jekyll, which would explain the strange change in the will. But Jekyll does not want to talk about it. One year later, a servant girl witnesses the beating to death of an MP by Hyde. The MP appears to be a client of Utterson, and he then confronts Jekyll once again who claims to have ended all relations with Hyde, even showing him a letter whose hand writing bears some resemblance. Then Jekyll decides to isolate himself, he does not want to see anyone, and Lanyon, a mutual friend, dies after getting information concerning Dr Jekyll. One day, Utterson and Enfield are called into Jekyll’s house by his butler. Apparently he has enclosed himself in his laboratory and does not want to leave it. They finally enter the room and find the body of Hyde in Jekyll’s clothes. They also find a letter written by Jekyll which explains everything.Got to top
In his confession scattered with biblical overtones, evocative of Stevenson’s Calvinist upbringing, Jekyll starts with numerous mentions of the duality of man: “profound duplicity of life”, “man’s dual nature”, “that man is not truly one, but truly two.”. But the true confession and the essence of Stevenson is apparent in those lines: “If each (element), I told myself, could be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust delivered from the aspirations might go his way, and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil….”. Still, the near religious tone of some of those lines tells us that Stevenson is at the same time conscious of man’s dual nature, a key principle of Christian scriptures (see Romans: “Now if I do what I don’t want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.”), and critical of Calvinist religion’s forceful attempt at suppressing that ambiguity, therefore turning most men into suppressed apparent do-gooders with repressed violent and animal instincts, a society made of ticking human bombs only concerned with the trappings of respectability. One might also consider that Stevenson’s enduring illness has enhanced this feeling of the duality of everything, creative soul, sick wreck, going through constant psychological and physical ups and downs, and probably dreaming of suppressing the one to the benefit of the other, but realising at the same time that the combination of the two is what makes man truly unique: creative, imaginative, soulful. In other words, “Strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” is also a take on the negative effects on society of religion’s repressive instincts. In conclusion, “Strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” is the product of multiple influences: (Edgar Allan Poe for the narrative construction?), gothic tales and Scottish tales, but the main influence remains one of the “double” or “Doppelganger” stories such as Maupassant’s Le Horla, Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, Hoffmann’s "Die Doppelganger", Doestoïevski’s Le Double, and even Poe’s William Wilson. No wonder that most of those literary works, scattered across the United States, Britain, Germany, Russia and France, predate Freud’s works and the surge of psychoanalysis within society. It shows the interesting historical relationship between art and science, how one influences the other, and vice versa, how both are influenced by their times.Got to top
The Victorian times
It has been argued that “Strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” was violently critical of Victorian society. In the bourgeois-dominated Nineteenth century, respectability and hypocrisy naturally go hand in hand, two sides of the same coin. And it is true that this self-confident, domineering society had a tendency to forget about its darker sides: abject poverty, pauperisation of disenfranchised social classes by the wealthy in cahoots with the powerful, colonial exploitation of so-called inferior races, respectability of marriage coupled with the generalisation of prostitution… If at the core, “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” is the tale of the dual nature of man being suppressed by the harsh Calvinist religion, an allegory on the effet it has on the mental stability of men and society as a whole, preceding the rise to prominence of psychoanalysis (Freud is experimenting with psychoanalysis at the same time Stevenson is writing this novel), the context of Victorian society provides a truer than life background.Got to top
Tale of two cities: Edinburgh
Stevenson is a Scottish writer. One of the outcomes of the Scottish Enlightenment is the new outlook of the Scottish capital, divided since the Eighteenth century between the New Town, domain of the upper classes, and the Old Town, squalid, filthy terrain of the underclass. Deep rooted in Stevenson’s memories, the faces of the two Edinburgh come to life under the traits of the genteel, solemn Dr Jekyll, and the small, ugly and animal looking Mr Hyde. Dr Jekyll’s attempt to separate himself from his evil feelings, and at the same time the pleasure he first finds living his new alter ego life (“headlong into a sea of liberty”), is not only a representation of the repressed Victorian society, proper in appearance and oozing with lust, but also an allegory of the Edinburgh of the 19th century.Got to top
Bruce Chatwin on Stevenson
Bruce Chatwin did not like Stevenson. He considered him to be a second rank author that struck it lucky. Whether we agree with him or not is not the subject. But in a 1974 article titled “The road to the isles”, Chatwin explains Stevenson was inspired by Deacon Brodie, an Edinburgh historical character, who had his dark sides and was finally hanged. Chatwin also insists further on the importance of Edinburgh in the genesis of “Strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”. He explains that Chesterton is the one who first highlighted its Edinburghian influence, with its dreary and solemn atmosphere, its sequences of lights, its Calvinist extremes between absolute Good and Evil.
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