“If he be Mr. Hyde” he had thought, “I shall be Mr. Seek.”
— Robert Louis Stevenson
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has the same literary notoriety as its monstrous companions, Dracula and Frankenstein. Many people have heard of it and its famous characters, but only a rare few have actually read it. Jekyll and Hyde, to which it can be abbreviated, is a short story written by Robert Louis Stevenson of Treasure Island fame. Claiming the idea had come to him in the form of a dream, he wrote the whole thing in three days—only to chuck it into the fire and do it all over again in another three days. Stevenson’s apparent eccentricity is perhaps what gives Jekyll and Hyde its alarming realism.
Ignorant of the author’s difficulties, the book became incredibly popular, selling thousands of copies shortly after its release (Davidson xii-xlv). This was during the Victorian era in England, a time of technological advancement and a surge of new philosophical ideas. It is no small wonder, then, that Jekyll and Hyde struck a chord in the hearts of so many. The book’s focus on the duality of human nature harks back to a phenomenon that has existed for as long as the earth, originating with the tale of Cain and Abel. Those two brothers uncannily resemble Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, specifically with regards to the traditional binary of good vs. evil.
What is this fascination with the double nature? Perhaps it is due to the impossibility of being able to equally embody both qualities: one will inevitably reign over the other. Yet Dr. Jekyll manages to accomplish the impossible. With a self-created potion, he brings forth his inner desires in the form of Mr. Hyde. Through this alternate personality, Jekyll rules the London night, unfettered with moral restrains. Eventually, the “good” Dr. Jekyll loses out to the “evil” Hyde, causing the former to believe Hyde has become a different person entirely. However, the evidence points the other way, despite Jekyll’s excuses. Jekyll and Hyde are indeed complete opposites but not separate beings—merely fragmented parts of a poor man’s mind.
Before the events of the story, Henry Jekyll was a respectable doctor. One of his friends, Mr. Utterson, describes him as warm and sincere, a kind man. Although, by the time the narrative begins, Jekyll is well into his middle age, and he admits to having been wild when young, a fact confirmed by Utterson. Jekyll “regarded and hid [those desires] with an almost morbid sense of shame” (Stevenson 61) as he got older in order to maintain the proud, noble demeanor of an upstanding physician. He realized that the suppression of these hidden pleasures had divided his nature between the “provinces of good and ill” (61), and haunted at the notion of being a hypocrite, he resolved to be rid of his shameful self and only harbor the honest side.
If each, I told myself, could be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations 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 that hands of extraneous evil. (62)
With that happy thought, Jekyll created his transformation potion, risking death and the unknown. A quick swig, and Dr. Jekyll became Mr. Edward Hyde. That Jekyll gave the personification a different name indicates his belief that he and Hyde were not the same person. Nonetheless, the entire climax of the novel is the unveiling of Jekyll being Hyde and vice versa, despite Jekyll trying to convince himself otherwise.
In the beginning, Jekyll is rather pleased with himself at the success of his chemical escapade, to the point of adding “Mr. Hyde” to his will, much to the distress of his lawyer, Utterson (10-21).
“…It isn’t what you fancy; it is not as bad as that; and just to put your good heart at rest, I will tell you one thing: the moment I choose, I can be rid of Mr Hyde. …I have really a very great interest in poor Hyde. …I do sincerely take great, a very great interest in that
young man…” (23).
Jekyll clearly enjoyed the freedoms that Hyde offered to him; Hyde was younger, more confident, and lacking in restrictive piety. Normal doctor life lost all excitement for Jekyll, and he became a slave to the transformations. He considered Hyde a hired man of sorts, one that would carry out all of his commands while he remained out of sight. Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever, and Jekyll began to realize, all too late, that Hyde was getting out of control. The potion sessions ceased, and Jekyll started his slow ascent back into the rungs of proper society, convinced he had rid himself of Hyde for good.
Sadly, it was no longer that simple. Hyde had become his outlet for the heretofore smothered manias, and “tortured with throes and longings, as of Hyde struggling after freedom” (71), Jekyll succumbed to moral weakness. “[The] devil had been long caged, he came out roaring” (71), not unlike that of a ravenous beast. So monstrous, in fact, that within a few hours, Hyde murdered a man. Jekyll tried to make excuses, comparing himself to an alcoholic on a drunken rampage, but the truth weighed heavily on his conscience. Thinking that Hyde being a wanted man would be incentive enough to quit the transformations, Jekyll believed he was safe. Sin cannot be hidden, however, and Jekyll made the alarming discovery that Hyde could emerge automatically—without the potion’s assistance (72-75).
Afraid at what he had become, Jekyll started to refer to Hyde in the third person, not merely out of habit or appearance but in a deluded attempt to isolate “that child of Hell” (75). He failed to comprehend that he and Hyde are not different people, but that his good and evil sides were no longer mixed but separated. This is visibly evident in the other characters’ reactions to Hyde, who is often referred to being “displeasing…down-right detestable…deformed” (11), and ultimately indescribable. Jekyll, aware of Hyde’s repugnancy, theorized, “’This, as I take it, was because all human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil: and Edward Hyde, alone in the ranks of mankind, was pure evil’” (65).
As Hyde was the personification of an alternate, “evil” Jekyll, the latter could not resist for long. He fought hard, to be sure, but as irony would have it, the potion had been created by flux of luck—good or bad, depending on whom to ask—as one of the ingredients had been impure, a random deficiency unreproducible. While the potions had been at first used to change into Hyde, a feat difficult to accomplish in the beginning, they had since become an antidote, allowing the return to the form of Jekyll. With the depletion of the cursed drink, Jekyll remained as Hyde till his death (48).
The tragic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is not the tale of two men, but of one. While the characters in the story, even Jekyll himself, believe the two to be different people in one body, it is only two personalities, or identities. Jekyll is aware that Hyde is him, that Hyde is a manifestation of his evil desires, the removal of his social and moral barriers (65-68). When Jekyll is trapped outside his laboratory in the guise of Hyde, he calls upon his friend, Lanyon, to retrieve the transformation mixture (53-60). If Hyde was really another person, having taken control of Jekyll, he would either not know of the existence of Jekyll at all or at the very least, not want to change back into the latter. Never is the story told from Hyde’s perspective, as a matter of fact; only Jekyll speaks for both, which he would be unable to do if Hyde was completely separated, as each would have no memory of the other’s actions. Ultimately, Jekyll is the one committing the crimes and other unspeakable acts; “Hyde” is nothing more than a removal of guilt.
Dr. Jekyll started his experiment with good intent: to establish his true identity. Although in the end he ended up losing it, his journey of self-discovery is powerful. Is identity self-given, or created by others? Jekyll the doctor was an upstanding member of society, loved by his peers; in contrast, Hyde the monster was a deformed scoundrel, desisted by the public. In both cases, Jekyll’s identity was determined by other people, and it was their adoration for Jekyll that lead to his backfired attempt to rid himself of the not-so-amazing bits. For most normal people, identity is a combination of the two: a person allows others to judge who they are, but will also often constrict the ultimate decision for themselves. Perhaps then, it is fortuitous that a potion of the Jekyll and Hyde nature does not exist and so people are compelled to sort out their identity alone—and correctly.
Davidson, Jenny. Introduction (2003). In R.L. Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Other Stories (pp. xiii-xlv). New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003. Print.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Other Stories. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003. Print.
This was an essay I wrote for my college English class in 2010. I’ve always liked this story, frightening as it is, and I also enjoyed (for the most part) the 2007 BBC Jekyll mini-series, starring James Nesbitt (who is AMAZING).
Header image from Wikimedia Commons.