Can Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde be seen as a commentary on Victorian Society? Essay
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In the Victorian times of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, keeping an impeccable image and social profile is of great concern to upper middle-class professionals. But behind the strict rules of their society lie desire, temptation and curiosity. Robert Louis Stevenson focuses on three professionals, two doctors and a lawyer, who are representative of this contradictory aspect of Victorian society. They both value the façade of a proper life and have a secret side that contradicts it.
Doctor Jekyll can be seen as portraying a victim of desire.
He is a wealthy, successful and well-liked doctor, describing himself as “fond of the respect of the wise and good among [his] fellowmen”. Yet those qualities set aside, he is consumed by a darker, more evil side. Though he craves to set it loose, he is embarrassed by it and feels the need to hide it: ”Many a man would have even blazoned such irregularities as I was guilty of; but from the high views that I had set before me, I regarded them with an almost morbid sense of shame”. The pressure that Jekyll endures to adapt to the rules of society and therefore to suppress his desires and evil impulses provokes the decision to split his contradictory sides in two, thus to create a separate Hyde to embody the negative elements.
He hopes this will allow him to appear to follow a righteous path, while allowing Hyde and therefore his more unacceptable impulses to also be freed: “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”.
“Separated” from Hyde, we see that Jekyll has actually become the victim and lost control. Jekyll is repulsed by Hyde and admits he is “pure evil”. When Hyde dominates, however, Jekyll asserts he is “conscious of no repugnance, rather of a leap of welcome”. Even when Jekyll attempts to suppress Hyde completely, Stevenson depicts him as the weak link: his inner demon tempts him and drags him back to falling into desire. Hyde becomes uncontrollable, as evil is, and eventually comes to permanently replace Jekyll.
Stevenson uses Edward Hyde to convey a range of ideas about the nature and power of evil as well as about our response to it. Hyde raises a fear and deep repulsion in other people, as seen in Enfield’s story of the door. “I had taken a loathing to my gentleman at first sight” Enfield claims, suggesting that Hyde’s mere physical appearance brings out the worst in people. Hyde, as asserted by Jekyll, is purely evil and is constantly compared to Satan or a primitive creature. He is described by Jekyll as having “ape-like spite” and by Enfield as being “really like Satan”. These connotations suggest that Hyde is actually the original nature of man, repressed over the years by the bonds of civilization.
Of all the characters, he is the only one who does not care about society and thus is a free man. Yet even though Hyde is presented as being the worst creature that could possibly exist, he carries out his evil in a way that a person enduring the pressures of Victorian society can relate to. This is represented by Hyde’s house in Soho, a neighborhood where respectable people went to indulge their secret sides. It is never said what Hyde does in Soho both in order to suggest sin that needs to be hidden from the eyes of society, but also to allow a reader to imagine the unacceptable behavior in question: it makes the text more universal in being less specific.
The dangers of a boundless freedom are equally depicted in Hyde’s character. As the story progresses, his evil becomes greater. He kills Sir Danvers Carew possibly for the simple reason that he is a purely good, well-loved man; pure evil hates pure good. Jekyll later relates that “with a transport of glee, [he] maul[s] the unresisting body, tasting delight from every blow” showing the pleasure Hyde takes in his act. As Hyde has no limits, he does immoral things without even seeming to realize the extent of his actions. After trampling “calmly” over a girl, he leaves her “screaming on the ground” as if nothing has happened. Stevenson uses an old man and a young girl as both of Hyde’s victims to underline the fact that Hyde acts upon his impulses and chooses his victims as they come, no pattern can be found in his choices.
Yet despite having painted Hyde as vile and primitive, he surprises others in his interactions with his good manners and education. This puts forth the connection between Jekyll and Hyde. Though Hyde is considered as purely evil, he retains a part of Jekyll, which comes out when dealing with people Jekyll knows: he uses terms such as “I beg your pardon” and uses the polite title in front of people’s namesThis is also the case when Hyde writes the note to Lanyon, by the hand of Henry Jekyll, suggesting that no matter how much more powerful Hyde is than Jekyll, there is still a part in Hyde where Jekyll dominates.
Stevenson uses the character of Lanyon as a lens through which the reader sees Jekyll. Though Lanyon plays only a minor role in the plot, his thematic significance extends beyond his few appearances. Like Jekyll, he is a doctor, but their scientific paths diverge years before the novel begins. Lanyon believes in a ‘Victorian science’ which is a material science that only leads to useful purposes and shuns unacceptable research such as Jekyll’s metaphysical science which Lanyon describes as “unscientific balderdash”.
As Lanyon is a fellow professional, it is appropriate that he be the one to witness Jekyll’s transformation. His account and description are credible as he is a doctor and he sees the materialization of Hyde into Jekyll in a technical way, observing every detail with the eye of an expert. Because of their scientific differences, though, initially Lanyon doesn’t comprehend the reasons why Jekyll would do such a thing. These differences show us how much Jekyll has diverged from the rules of society and the importance of anyone finding out about Jekyll’s experiments.
Lanyon also plays a major thematic role in exploring curiosity, its dangers and for the novella’s consequences. He has a natural desire for knowledge, seen in his occupation of scientist – he is a doctor, a medical researcher. This pushes him to be curious enough to test the boundaries of the rules of Victorian society. Hyde offers him a choice: either walk away without knowing the reason behind all Jekyll/Hyde had asked him to do or watch Hyde transform into Jekyll: “Will you be wise? Will you be guided? Will you suffer me to take this glass in my hand and to go forth from your house without further parley?
Or has the greed of curiosity too much command of you”. According to Victorian rules, the right decision would be to pick the first option, yet Lanyon, consumed by curiosity and dying for answers, picks the second. This decision, though it brings Lanyon answers, also leads him to his downfall. He is so terrified by the knowledge of what Jekyll/Hyde have shown him that he chooses death over living with such unbearable truth; he says to Utterson, “I sometimes think if we knew all, we should be more glad to get away”, symbolizing that knowledge has a price and he finds death preferable.
Utterson, on the other hand, symbolizes the perfect Victorian gentleman. The first impression he makes on people is negative; he is said to be “cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary”. Yet his loyalty towards his friends makes him “somehow lovable”. Even when Utterson is convinced that Hyde is involved in various criminal activities, he keeps the facts to himself to save Jekyll’s social profile. He considers Hyde as “the ghost of some old sin, the cancer of some concealed disgrace: punishment coming, pede claudo, years after memory has forgotten and self-love condoned the fault”.
Utterson himself does not have anything to hide from society as he leads a life of regulated routine, dominated by his adherence to most principles. “It was his custom of a Sunday, when this meal was over, to sit close by the fire, a volume of some dry divinity on his reading-desk, until the clock of the neighboring church rang out the hour of twelve, when he would go soberly and gratefully to bed”. Utterson is a man in control of his feelings and desires. For example, he prefers to drink moderately and in the company of his friends; friends keep you secure.
In the end, Utterson’s Victorian sense of conformity and his loyalty to friends come together. This can be seen when he is summoned by Poole to Jekyll’s home and sees all the servants “huddled together like a flock of sheep”. Instead of being frightened, he searches for a coherent reason to explain the odd incidents related to Jekyll. Yet again, when Poole claims that his master has been replaced by someone else, Utterson tells him that Jekyll is simply “seized with one of those maladies that both deform and torture the sufferer”. Though Utterson suspects this is not the truth, he claims it is to not interfere with Jekyll’s life.
Utterson can also be seen as the character that inspires the most trust. His devotion to his friends makes him their primary confidant. This can be seen first through Lanyon, who decides to reveal what he knows about Jekyll to Utterson, when he has told no one else. Next, we can see this through Poole, who comes immediately to Utterson to seek help about his master, knowing that Utterson will make the right decision. Finally, Jekyll’s full statement to Utterson proves that he is the one whom everyone seems to trust. When Utterson receives Lanyon’s letter, he is told to only read it once Jekyll is dead. Utterson proves that the trust of others is well founded, as he is dying to know the cause of Lanyon’s sudden death, but he complies with the request.
Though Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is an entertaining page turner and successful popular novella, it can also be seen as representing strong criticism of Victorian society. As a horror story, it also represents more generally the fears of a society’s sins being revealed. As we analyze these different characters, we realize that the upper-middle class professionals were bound to strictness, repression and self-preservation by the society they had created. The denial of the existence of primitive, more instinctive elements of man leads to a suppression of part of man’s true nature in Victorian society. Jekyll, by unleashing this other true nature, reveals the greatest fears of society: the unknowable, the uncontrollable.