Question- “Discuss Stevenson’s portrayal of the nature of good and evil and the dual nature of man’s personality. What does this show us about Stevenson’s view of Victorian Britain?”
Born into the middle-class, prosperous district of “new” Edinburgh in Scotland, 1850, the young Robert Louis Stevenson’s life was a existence of opposites and contradictions. Just a few miles from his homeland lay the slums of “old” Edinburgh- a destitute sprawl of old urban living, disease and vice widespread and all to common. The young Master Stevenson was forbidden from this area, instead confined to his bedroom with his fanatic religious nanny- largely in part to his poor health and fragile immune system.
His nanny, Alison Cunningham, was a devout Calvinist, a religion with a mixture of both Christian and Folk religion ideals. Calvinism teaches that every human being is born into sin, and thus must take it upon themselves to seek God, going against their natural inclination. This rule, entitled Total Depravity, was taught to the young Stevenson by his nanny, therefore leading the young seven year old to question his every step, paving the way for horrific nightmares of Hell and the fury of the Devil.
As Stevenson grew up he found himself swept up in the cultural revolution that was “Bohemianism.” A now teenage Stevenson found himself attending raucous parties and living a second hand existence in near poverty, as what was expected from any bohemian person. He also found himself increasingly attached to the bottle and, on more then one occasion, visited prostitutes- an act that was seen as greatly immoral in the Victorian era and an action that would certainly have shocked his nanny. This deliberate act of rebellion shocked his parents and they temporarily disowned him and, although, Stevenson kept his attitudes and dislike of religion, the fall-out with his parents made him question the gulf in lifestyle that he and his parents had and the arguments also led him to question just what was right, and what was evil.
Whilst travelling Stevenson met a certain Fanny Osborne, a women both older then him and already married. They had a short lived affair before Osborne absconded, leaving her husband for the young Stevenson and the couple soon wed. Second marriages were considered a “taboo” topic in the Victorian era, and Stevenson once again found himself branded as “evil” and “ignorant”, further stimulating Stevenson’s mind on right and wrong.
Stevenson’s first wrote “The strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” in 1885 and the book was released a year later. Rumour has it that Stevenson wrote the book whilst heavily drugged; the author had a considerable liking of Cocaine, a mind-altering drug. The drug would have momentarily changed his perceptions and view on the world, and this is perhaps reflected in the book, further strengthening the divide that was beginning to shape his book. The book was fairly popular yet drew heavy criticism from some scholars who read the book as an allegory of inappropriate sexual desires. At the time Stevenson re-buffed the ideas, through fear of the popularity of his book diminishing, but he later admitted that the book could be read as an allegory of the troubles of Victorian society.
There are many themes that run deep through Stevenson’s novella, all centred around the line that divides good and evil. This topic of morality particularly fascinated the Victorian audience, largely thanks to the strength of the British Empire. The common Londoner’s heard tales of strange, far-away lands and peculiar, ritual-abiding tribe’s man and started to question their own rituals and actions. Stevenson’s book tapped into this market, asking whether what was considered “good and evil” was “good and evil” everywhere, or whether different people had different opinions on the difficult and dividing topic.???
Stevenson’s story begins with “The story of the door”, an opening chapter which tells the friendship of Mr Utterson and Mr Enfield, two respectable men who refuse to indulge in the spread of gossip. However they eventually begin to discuss the indecent trampling of a small girl, committed by a mysterious, twisted man, later named as Hyde. The fact that Hyde is introduced before Jekyll keeps the character of Mr Hyde fresh in the mind, and the irregular pattern (time-frame) of the book leads to the resulting conclusion being even more startling, especially for the Victorian audience who wouldn’t have expected anything similar to the actual ending.
The chapter is also rich in subtle foreshadowing of opposition and restraint. “He was austere with himself; drank gin when he was alone, to mortify a taste for vintages;”, is a perfect example of Stevenson’s subtle touch. The fact that Utterson drank Gin when alone, a drink regarded at the time as a “poor-man’s” drink, a drink that was crude and often associated with criminals and vice, to quench his thirst, nay, desire for rich wine represents Jekyll’s attitude towards Hyde: Jekyll deliberately starves himself of the drug he slowly becomes addicted to, the drug that turns himself into Hyde despite despising Hyde with every bone in his body. Yet Jekyll still feels a craving for the drug and has to substitute himself with other activity’s, despite his attempts at distraction resulting in vain.
The setting and atmosphere of Enfield’s recollection of the night when he first met Hyde also reflects the duality of man, a crucial aspect in Stevenson’s book. “A black winter morning…there was literally nothing but lamps” being a prime example of this. This abnormal lighting situation would produce shadows- the shadows representing the underclass of London society, the people that would hug street walls late at night, trying desperately not to be seen as they went about their shady business. The natural image of the black winter morning also juxtaposes the artificial light of the lamps, depicting the fact that, in the Victorian era, the citizens were always trying to triumph over nature, attempting to create social standards that even Mother Nature abided to. The stark contrast between dark and light is almost ignored in this quote, as the blackness of the night and the brightness of the lamps merge seamlessly into one another, thus representing Enfield’s confusion.
This confusion is epitomised by the quote: “I got into the state of mind when a man listens and listens and belongs to long for the sight of a policeman,”. Enfield states his nervousness and “longing” for a policeman, a rather unusual trait as the Metropolitan Police Force was still in it’s infancy and battling many an unfavourable opinion. Also the character was earlier described as a rather dull man, the “man about town”, an experienced figure who had seen just about every city occurrence. Yet here Stevenson describes him as worried and nervous, determined to find a member of the establishment that was so untrusted around town. As well as this Stevenson implies that he character can sense something is wrong; he has potentially sourced the overbearing threat of Mr Hyde.
This demonstrates the main antagonists intimidating nature before we are even introduced to him. This fear of the unknown could be related to Stevenson’s upbringing, surrounded by religion and threat of the Devil. In Christianity, and Calvinism, the Devil is both feared and yet paradoxically respected. His fundamentalist Nanny would have taught him of the threat of the Devil and also of the reason why the Devil was cast into Heaven (most prominently for failing to understand that he was created by God (that he had a dual nature)). This links in with Hyde’s nature and internal struggle- he can never fully become Jekyll because he was created BY Jekyll.
The quote: “like a forest in a fire” is a good example of Stevenson’s views on current society and the changing world that was revolving around him. The simile is used to emphasise the differences between the old, poor row of houses and the new, upper class street- no doubt a product of the industrial revolution that was currently sweeping the country. Forest’s contain nothing but wood, and the single most dangerous thing one could encounter in a forest is fire, where the spitting flames spread from tree to tree.
The simile could be linked to the Victorian industrial revolution: Stevenson views it as a hungry flame, sweeping away all of nature’s beauty and all of what the world used to comprise of, for now metal and steel is starting to replace the natural woods used to build shelter, and trees were being cut down to feed machines, which spat out new inventions and ideas. The quote has a negative edge relating to the industrial revolution, which fits in with Stevenson’s lifestyle and ethics. For he was a romanticist, a bohemian- interested in the preservation of nature, which they believed directly fed and influenced literature, poetry and art. The quote symbolises the divide that the industrial revolution was creating, and also questions whether the industrial revolution is good or bad, similarly to how the main theme of the book questions whether humans truly are good or evil.
The second chapter, entitled “The Search for Mr. Hyde” continues with some important quotations regarding the duality of man, “It was his custom of a Sunday, when this meal was over, to sit close by the fire, a volume of some dry divinity”, being one of these. The “dry divinity” means a religious book or text, and the reading of these kinds of texts was considered a honourable and dutiful act in the Victorian era. However Utterson describes the text as “dry”- he finds it boring, dull. Thus the quote informs us that Utterson sticks to conventional Victorian traditionalism, yet aches with boredom in doing so.
He yearns to be doing something else, somewhere else but feels compelled to follow his upstanding “Sunday custom”. This is typical of Victorian society and a crucial element of understanding the “duality of man”. For the Victorians tried to quench man’s natural instinct and mould him into a figure they determined respectable. Yet in pushing, in repressing people so far man rebelled, and began to question the life he lived under, leading to all of the Victorian “vices”, sex, alcohol and homosexuality becoming acceptable. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the Victorians oppression of the minority and the poor we probably wouldn’t be living in such a free society.
The usage of pathetic fallacy is a common and important tool in Stevenson’s novella. The fog increases in depth and prominence whenever Hyde is near , and the fog clears towards the end of the story when the mystery is close to being unravelled. “the first fog of the season, a great chocolate coloured pall lowered over the heavens” is a quote from the chapter: “The Carew Murder Case” and the use of pathetic fallacy has connotations of impending danger as well as connotations of the industrial revolution. The “chocolate coloured” essence of the fog has implications of the industrial revolution “poisoning” the fog, changing it’s colour and also the times when the fog appears.
The fog is stated as being the “first of the season”, yet the timeline would mean the fog was unnaturally early, implying the industrial revolution is harming and manipulating Mother Nature. The fog could be interpreted as nothing more then smog, a poisonous relation of the cleaner and more natural fog. The relationship between the unnatural smog, produced by the industrial revolution and the natural fog could also be linked to the relationship between Jekyll and Hyde; Hyde is a less natural side effect of Jekyll’s curiosity, Hyde is the poisonous, dangerous aspect of Jekyll. Jekyll could be interpreted as the influence of nature on Victorian society, an old-fashioned traditionalist being poisoned by new ideas and new beliefs.
The murder of Sir Danvers Carew is an important part of the book, and Stevenson’s description adds to the sense of confusion and fear that is created. We are fed the murder from the viewpoint of a maid who was “romantically given” just before the crime was committed. “he was trampling his victim under foot…under which the bones were audibly shattered and the body jumped upon the roadway” is an extract from the murder description. The description is vivid, Stevenson notes how the maid heard the “bones shatter”, surely an awful, sickening sound.
The murder is incredibly violent, representing Hyde’s anger boiling to the surface- alas; the exact reason for the murder is never truly revealed, leading us to think that Hyde needs violence to satisfy himself when he is allowed to roam free. The phrase “the body jumped upon the roadway” is also an interesting use of language, possibly representing the violence of the act; the body has been hit and abused so hard it is physically moving away from Hyde, his blows have pushed it away. The phrase adds to the sense of strength Hyde possesses, making him an even more formidable character.
“with indescribable amazement read the name of Gabriel John Utterson” We first learn the full name of Utterson in “The Last Night”, after Jekyll puts his name on his will. His name could be interpreted as some as incredibly significant to the story. There are many religious connotations in Stevenson’s novella, and Utterson’s first name could be another of these connotations. In the religion of Christianity, Gabriel is the arch-angel of God, and God’s chief messenger. He passes on messages from God to various biblical figures, giving him the title of “God’s medium”.
His role in Christianity is similar to Gabriel John Utterson’s in the “Strange Case of Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde”, he retells messages between Lanyon and Jekyll, and also uncovers the truth by reading messages intended as replies to another. Utterson’s first name also reveal his “good” side- he is a constant friend to Dr. Jekyll throughout the novella. Nearly every member of the reading Victorian audience would be familiar with the arch-angel Gabriel, and many readers would have made the link between “the two messengers”. Stevenson could also of used Utterson’s name as a way of stating that not everyone caught up in evil, is evil. Utterson is confronted with pure, undiluted evil a number of times in the story but he never once loses his sense of moral decency or moral fibre.
The final chapter in Stevenson’ story contains the most information regarding the “duality of man”. The final chapter is in chronological order- right from Jekyll’s childhood to his death. The chapter also informs us of how Jekyll grew up harbouring an “evil” side. “Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures” being an example of his youthful, dual personality. A youthful Jekyll realises that, once one enters manhood and the adult world one must learn to conceal any hope or joyfulness for fear of be let down by society or taken advantage of. So we learn that, even from childhood, Jekyll is living a lie and hiding his “split” personality from the world.
“I was in no sense a hypocrite; both sides of me were in dead earnest” is an example of a slightly older Jekyll’s newly stifled personality. He has forced down his natural, animal-like instincts and replaced them with an acceptable, Victorian type attitude. He has learnt to ignore his impulse and instead confer to Victorian era conformity. He has become emotionally repressed and, whilst he is coping at the minute there will always be a threat of his emotions bubbling over in a “Jack the Ripper” type emergence.
“My Devil had been long caged, it came out roaring…Instantly the spirit of Hell awoke in me and raged” is an example of such an outburst. We know from the story that a drug causes Jekyll’s evil side to emerge but the warning Stevenson writes of is that anybody can be unleashed, any human has the potential to be a crazed mass-murderer, or an evil psychopath if pushed (or oppressed) hard enough. This would of hit a chord with the reading audience who were still recovering from the Jack the Ripper attacks, which left many Londoners wondering just what kind of person could commit such crimes. The answer? Anybody- for the Victorian style of living had the potential to depress, oppress and ultimately, end lives…
Overall, I believe Stevenson wrote “The Strange Case of Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde” as a warning to the Victorian reader. He wanted the audience to realise that everyone, regardless of social stature, finance or credibility, had the potential to be evil. Yet, in his novella, Stevenson almost determines that there is no real definition of “good and evil”. The human body is a complex machine and, like a snowflake, the human body changes with each individual.
Humans realise and readily accept that every human has different fingerprints yet seems to find it harder to link this fact with the human brain. For ultimately, every single human is different thus the guidelines of “good and evil” change with every single person. And, ultimately, who are we to question who is good and who is evil? There are thousands of different religions, what if they are all wrong and the one, true religion (if there is one) actually determines evil as good, and good as evil. We are just mere mortals, and the human brain is the most complex thing on the planet. Before we even begin to scrape the surface of this complex machine, we must first begin to understand the secrets of the universe, and life.
“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.” So said Albert Einstein, one of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century. I believe that this quote sums up Stevenson’s approach to the dividing line between good and evil. For where other people of the age, fresh from the horrors of the Ripper murders, strived to find a logical answer to the line between good and evil, Stevenson instead “moved in the opposite direction”. Rather then attempt to answer the question, he questioned the question, asking whether there was an answer to a question that people were still questioning. After all, how can one answer a question that is not even based on fact, or truth, but instead on prediction?
Stevenson’s opinion on religion is prevalent throughout the story. The story has a number of biblical links, no doubt harking back to the days he spent locked in his room with Alison Cunningham, whilst being fed awful stories of Hell and the Devil. There are a number of religious links, one of these being: “This inexplicable incident, this reversal of my previous experience, seemed, like the Babylonian finger on the wall, to be spelling out the letters of my judgment.”
This quote mirrors the experience of Prince Belshazzar, a Babylonian prince featured in the book of Daniel. The prince, whilst dining one night, sees a mysterious, disembodied hand floating behind him. As he turned to face it, the hand begun writing in a mysterious code, on the wall. A translator later interpreted the coded writing as: “Thou art weighed In the balance and art found wanting”. Later that night Belshazzar is murdered in peculiar circumstances, hence the popular saying; “the writing on the wall”. Jekyll can see his impending doom, due to his evil exploits as Hyde but his good side is still portrayed by Stevenson, the use of religion is used for this.
In the book, I believe Stevenson uses religion as a writing technique; when Stevenson wants to signify the emotive nature of people , he uses religious links and connotations. Hyde is forever associated with Hell and the Devil, whilst Jekyll and Utterson is associated with Gabriel, and the “light” side of religion. Religion is used to measure and signify, to compare and contrast. Religion also represents a divide in beliefs and personality. The end of the Victorian era was the first time, since the beginning of Christianity, that people were beginning to question and doubt religion. “Jekyll and Hyde” was penned during this time and concerns itself with the duality of man. Stevenson simply used the biggest cultural divide of the day: religion, and weaved it into his book, making the theme of duality more relevant to the reading Victorian audience.
Overall, “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” questions and challenges what would have been conventional beliefs in the Victorian era. It makes the reader question his own sense of right and wrong, and challenges religion and science- the two cultures that were so opposed to each other in the Victorian ere. It incorporates the depression that surrounded the Victorian dynasty, the industrial revolution, the Jack the Ripper murders and the strict conformity of living the Victorians imposed.
But it also includes the first green shoots of hope that began to surface around the late 1800’s- Charles Darwin’s “The Theory of Evolution” is integrated through Jekyll’s science and the fact that Jekyll, despite through the persona of Hyde, engaged in activities such as sex and alcoholism sent the message that man can experiment, as long as it didn’t threaten or harm anyone else. The book was aware of the duality and diversity of it’s audience and revelled in this. Stevenson’s book was a revolution in itself. For it changed the conventional type of living and made people question the rules they lived under. And any book that can influence people on this scale is a rare, and beautiful, thing.
“The mark of a good action is that it appears inevitable in retrospect.”