The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was written by Robert Louis Stevenson. Although posterity, snobbery, and ignorance have relegated Stevenson (1850-1894) to the role of children’s author, in the second half of the nineteenth century Stevenson was a major writer, close friends with Henry James and H. Rider Haggard, producer of bestsellers and critically-acclaimed works, a writer who wrote for all age groups and whose work was read by both low- and high-brows. Discerning critics have (justifiably) called Stevenson the initiator of the “Age of Storytellers,” the great flowering of high-quality popular fiction from the 1880s until 1914.1
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde begins with a discussion between Richard Enfield and his cousin Utterson. Enfield tells Utterson about an incident he had witnessed some time ago. A small man had run into a little girl, trampled her, and left her screaming on the ground. Enfield collared the man and brought him back to the girl, and the man, who gave his name as Hyde, paid one hundred pounds to the girl’s family. There was something about Hyde that Enfield found repellant. Utterson is interested in the story, and when he and Enfield part Utterson returns home and reads the will of his friend and client Doctor Henry Jekyll, which stated that if Jekyll should disappear for longer than three months, Edward Hyde would receive Jekyll’s wealth. Utterson visits Jekyll, but their meeting goes badly. Jekyll will not discuss the matter with Utterson and insists that the terms of the will be followed. Utterson believes that Hyde is blackmailing Jekyll but is unable to take any further action.
Almost a year later a kind old man, Sir Danvers Carew, is brutally clubbed to death by Hyde. Utterson brings the police to Hyde’s quarters, in a dismal section of Soho, but he is not there and the police do not catch him. Utterson confronts Jekyll, who swears that he will have nothing further to do with Hyde. Some time later Doctor Lanyon falls deathly ill. Lanyon and Jekyll had formerly been close friends, but Lanyon refuses to see Jekyll or even discuss him, for reasons he will not tell Utterson of. When Lanyon dies Utterson receives a letter Lanyon wrote him before he died. Inside the letter is another letter, which is not to be opened until Jekyll has died or disappeared. Utterson and Enfield visit Jekyll, but he is ill and suffers from a paroxysm on seeing them. Soon after, Jekyll’s servant Poole visits Utterson and tells him that he thinks Jekyll has been murdered. When Utterson tries to get into Jekyll’s lab a voice which is clearly not Jekyll’s tells Utterson to go away. Poole tells Utterson that for a week Jekyll has been shut up in his lab demanding a strange drug, and that recently Hyde has been seen in the lab rather than Jekyll. Utterson and Poole break into the lab and find Hyde’s body, dead from suicide. Jekyll’s body is nowhere to be found, but Utterson and Poole find a note from Jekyll stating that he is going to disappear and that Utterson should read the letter which Lanyon gave him. Utterson reads the letter, which describes how Jekyll had asked Lanyon to gather some special drugs. But it was Hyde rather than Jekyll who received the drugs from Lanyon. When Hyde ingested the drugs, he turned into Jekyll, and what Jekyll told Lanyon following the transformation was the mortal blow which eventually killed Lanyon.
The novel then concludes with Jekyll’s account of his life. From early on he lived a double life, moral in public and sinful in private. He became convinced that humans have dual personalities, that “man is not truly one, but truly two,”2 and that if he could separate his moral and immoral personalities into different physical beings, the moral torment, the “dreadful shipwreck,” could be relieved. Jekyll found a mixture of drugs which physically transformed him into the personification of his wickedness: Edward Hyde. Hyde was free to live out Jekyll’s sins and desires, and did so. Jekyll enjoyed this freedom from responsibility, but one night he went to bed as Jekyll and woke up the next morning as Hyde, in Hyde’s Soho apartment. This made Jekyll realize that Hyde was growing in power and might permanently take control of Jekyll. Jekyll attempted to refrain from transforming into Hyde, but after a two month break he succumbed to temptation and took the drug. That night Hyde murdered Danvers Carew. The next morning Jekyll swore never turn into Hyde again. But one day in a park Jekyll involuntarily turned into Hyde. He needed the drugs, so he asked Lanyon for them, and that led to Lanyon seeing the transformation. After that Hyde constantly reappeared. Jekyll could no longer find a pure supply of the drugs which would allow him to turn reverse the transformation from Hyde, so, as Hyde, he took poison and killed himself.
One of Stevenson’s inspirations for The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was the life of William Brodie (1741-1788), who was a respected member of Edinburgh society, a cabinet-maker, a member of the Town Council, and a deacon of the local Masons. By night Brodie led a gang of burglars; Brodie needed the money to support his mistresses, children, and gambling habits. Stevenson’s father had owned furniture made by Brodie, and the cabinet
stood at the foot of Robert Louis Stevenson’s bed in the New Town, and the then-young author, reminded every day of its provenance, became so obsessed by the Brodie story—and thus by any human being’s capacity to be more than one personality in one body—that he was moved to no fewer than three creations based on him.3
The premise of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is commonly known. Despite its genre trappings the novel is now firmly in the literary canon, and no less than John Fowles wrote that “the fact that every Victorian had two minds...makes the best guidebook to the age possibly Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Behind its latterday Gothick lies a very profound and epoch-revealing truth.”4 The very phrase “Jekyll and Hyde” has become a cliché. But it is also true that most people have not read the novel as adults and are unfamiliar with some of its specifics.
Stevenson’s first version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was criticized by his wife for being “merely a story–a magnificent bit of sensationalism–when it should have been a masterpiece.”5 Stevenson responded to this criticism by throwing a tantrum and then burning the original manuscript and rewriting it into its current form, making the allegory of the split personality more explicit. It is the allegory that is usually forgotten by those who have not read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as adults, and it is the allegory that draws most of the attention from academics and critics. But what is often not mentioned in discussions of the novel is how readable the story is. Stevenson’s style is slightly stiff, unlike his work in Kidnapped, but he has a deft hand at physical description, and his dialogue is at the least utilitarian, and more than occasionally apt. Stevenson never presents Hyde’s perspective, but the wretched nature of Jekyll is fleshed out, giving the novel a psychological element that other similar stories of the time often lacked.
Dr. Jekyll also has the aforementioned allegory. The novel admits of many interpretations, some plausible and some outlandish, to the point that Judith Halbertsam accurately described the novel as a “meaning machine.”6 The four most common interpretations—keeping in mind that no novel is ever about only one thing—are Hyde as the Victorian underclass; Hyde as the repressed Id; Hyde as an evolutionary throwback; and, pace Elaine Showalter, Hyde as Jekyll’s gay side, with the novel being “a fable of fin-de-siècle homosexual panic, the discovery and resistance of the homosexual self.”7 Interpreting the novel’s allegory is an almost irresistible game for the critic and an easy mark for a lazy student. As Richard Dury writes, Hyde
eludes interpretation—indeed, he seems to be a signifier for everything that is feared and so hidden and excluded from consciousness: instinctive drives, non-rational behaviour and motivation, homosexuality, the feminine, corporeality, materiality, decay and death, annihilation and meaninglessness; and also (on a sociological level) the urban poor and the criminal underclass.8
“Hyde represents the Victorian underclass” is an interesting interpretation but one in my view not supported by the novel and wholly dependent on the political leanings of the critic. The “Hyde is the repressed Id” argument is not particularly compelling, either. What is commonly forgotten is that Hyde is not all rage or unchecked urges. In this Hyde is similar to the Creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Popular conceptions of both the Creature and Hyde spring from media portrayals rather than from their original, literary portrayals. The literary Creature is not mute and stupid, as he is in the movies, but rather articulate and literate. Nor is the literary Hyde all emotion or all anger. He is not unintelligent, is often civil, and he easily controls himself on a few occasions. He can certainly rage and be savage, but when confronted by a crowd or by one of Jekyll’s friends, he is composed.
The argument about Hyde’s homosexuality, advanced by Showalter among others, is more plausible. The novel lacks women entirely and every character is a bachelor, and the revulsion that the other characters feel toward Hyde would certainly qualify as the Victorian version of “gay panic.” In a sense Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde is a mirror image of The Picture of Dorian Gray, with the exception that the all-male cast of the latter are well aware of their own sexuality and practice it openly, while the all-male cast of the former seem to lack sexuality altogether or have repressed it completely—which begs the question of why they are repressing it? Jekyll is certainly relieved when he stops becoming Hyde; if Hyde is Jekyll’s gay self, the relief of the repressed and presumably gay-hating Jekyll is quickly understandable. However, Jekyll’s relief at the departure of Hyde does not seem to be a guilty relief, such as when the forbidden repressed stops being visible, but pure relief. The argument that the novel is about repressed homosexuality can never be definitively solved, but the evidence for it is not wholly convincing.
Interestingly, the argument that the novel is a parable about evolution is perhaps the soundest:
Theories of degeneration and the view of crime as a throwback to an earlier, more primitive and violent phase of human development were prevalent in England at the time that Stevenson wrote Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Stevenson evokes theories of both evolution and degeneration in his descriptions of Mr. Hyde as a kind of monkey, and as a less developed, more primitive version of Dr. Jekyll.9
Jekyll’s obsession is with something that his friend Lanyon calls “unscientific balderdash,”10 and Lanyon and Jekyll have “differed at times on scientific questions.”11 The scientific question in mind would seem to be evolution, with Jekyll believing it and Lanyon disbelieving Darwin’s theory. Evolution was only a little less controversial in 1885 than it was when Darwin articulated it in print, and the 1880s in particular were a time of vehement debate on the nature-vs-nurture question. Jekyll and Hyde can be seen as a response in fiction to this debate, coming down firmly on the nature side. The physical descriptions of Hyde seem to support this position: he “gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation,”12 his cry is one of “mere animal terror,”13 and he walks in an “quick light way.”14 Hyde is smaller than Jekyll, not bigger. Most symbolically, there is the “pious work” which Jekyll held in “great esteem” which Hyde “annotated, in his own hand, with startling blasphemies.”15 Under the evolutionary-parable interpretation, Hyde is a brutal evolutionary throwback. Defacing Jekyll’s “pious work”—obviously the Bible—is a blow by evolution against religion. The “quick light way” in which Hyde walks is catlike, and the “scientific questions” which Lanyon and Jekyll differ on are not sexual questions, but scientific–i.e., evolutionary–ones. Hyde’s “deformity” is the facial features of an earlier version of homo sapiens. Hyde is smaller than Jekyll because most of the primates are smaller than humans.
Ultimately, however, even the evolutionary allegory is not satisfying or convincing, because it is probably not what Stevenson intended. Jekyll specifically states that Hyde is smaller than he because Hyde’s sins are “less robust and less developed” than his better side. Hyde’s face is not just ugly or deformed—it inspires instant and vicious loathing to a supernatural degree. The revulsion Hyde causes is beyond reason; merely looking at him makes one “turn sick and white with the desire to kill him.”16 The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde can be interpreted in many ways, but ultimately it cannot be explained. The novel is close to being a Gothic, including its use of the doppelgänger and the motif of the Victor Frankenstein-like (see: Frankenstein) over-curious scientist. But Dr. Jekyll is a work of horror rather than a Gothic. Mr. Hyde is frightening because he is Wrong, in the same way that haunted houses are Wrong. Hyde cannot, finally, be explained by science, but by religion or magic. It may be that Stevenson never intended the allegory of Dr. Jekyll to fully be plumbed, but rather to retain its mystery, and thereby its power.
Print: Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.
For Further Research
Robert Louis Stevenson and Martin Danahay, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde, third edition (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2015).
1 See Mike Ashley’s The Age of the Storytellers: British Popular Fiction Magazines, 1880-1950 (London: British Library, 2006) and Roger Lancelyn Green, “Introduction,” The Prince of Zenda (New York: Heritage Press, 1966) for more on this glorious age of letters and Stevenson’s role in starting it.
2 Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1903), 106.
3 Rick Wilson, The Man Who Was Jekyll and Hyde: The Lives and Crimes of Deacon Brodie (Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2015), 9.
4 John Fowles, The French Lieutenant’s Woman (New York: Signet, 1969), 50.
5 Ian Bell, Dreams of Exile: Robert Louis Stevenson, A Biography (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1992), 175.
6 Judith Halberstam, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995), 26.
7 Elaine Showalter, Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle (New York: Viking, 1990), 107.
8 Richard Dury, “Introduction,” in Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), xxxix.
9 Martin Danahay, “Introduction,” in Robert Louis Stevenson and Martin Danahay, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde, third edition (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2015), 20.
10 Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll, 17.
11 Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll, 89.
12 Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll, 25.
13 Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll, 81.
14 Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll, 77.
15 Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll, 84.
16 Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll, 7.