‘Man is not truly one but truly two’ – this message depicts the basic plot of the story ‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde’ by Robert Louis Stevenson. R.L. Stevenson was a marvelous novelist who fascinated the world with his originality of ideas and power to tell a story. His narrative skill, the unusual theme and the sensitive use of language makes his story very absorbing and engrossing. This book reflects Stevenson’s reaction to the Victorian society, which was known for it’s strict rules. Stevenson, through his book, also attacks the men of his time, who were respectable by day but were demons at night. Stevenson was brought up in a Calvinistic background, as his nurse was a follower of Calvinism. From a young age, she instilled into him the consequences of sin and the repentance in hell. Due to this, his book also has some Biblical and mythological references.
The book attacks the theme of human infallibility, too- the belief that no human can ever go wrong and that they can never make mistakes. The story is also similar to Mary Shelley’s book, Frankenstein, as in both the stories monsters are created, and these monsters eventually destroy their masters and create havoc in the lives of many. Even Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is reflected in the story as some of the characters, mainly, Edward Hyde, display a lot of characteristics and mannerisms that are animalistic in nature.
There are many themes in the book and one theme that features prominently throughout the book is the theme of duality. Stevenson portrays this duality in almost all of his characters, mainly the protagonist, Dr. Henry Jekyll. There is contradiction in everything, too- the characters, the setting and the atmosphere, as well.
The character of Dr. Jekyll is coloured with deep shades of duality. He was a typical Victorian gentleman, who was on the ‘pink of proprieties’. He always wanted the best and was a very sophisticated man who had a very good taste in art as well. Though he was a ‘smooth-faced’ and a ‘well made man’, he had a crumpled and distorted life history. But Jekyll’s weakness that finally ruined him was his too much yearning for a good reputation, which eventually, cost him dearly. Also, his ambitious nature could be the cause of his destruction as professionally, he was very daring and always did something unconventional. He was unorthodox and dared to tread on a path which others, in the same profession, would rather not have. He had a profound interest in the duplicity of life and the duality of man’s character, which lead him to further experiment with his life and fate.
It did nothing much but to further lead him on the path of self-destruction, as later he had no control over himself and his actions. In a way, the society could be held responsible for the increase in Jekyll’s secret desires. Victorian society, at that time was known for its inflexibility and rigidity and this rigidity made reputation the top priority for all gentlemen. People struggled to live up to society’s standards as the society condemned and disapproved of anything unconventional. But, inspite of this, some men indulged in their fantasies. So in this way, the book also focuses on Victorian hypocrisy, as the Victorian gentleman was full of pretence. It shows the double standards of most people, as there was a wide gap of difference between their public life and their private life. Jekyll wanted to fulfill his desires but at the same time he wanted freedom from punishment; freedom from a tainted reputation.
The wish to go against society’s rigid rules without losing his status and reputation was Jekyll’s ultimate goal. The only way to achieve this almost perfect, yet impossible goal was by Jekyll creating another identity of his own and he achieved this with the help of the ‘transforming draught’. Thus, Edward Hyde, Jekyll’s pure, unadulterated evil form, was born. Through Hyde, Jekyll could fulfill all his secret passions and could indulge in illicit pleasure, as he wanted, without putting his reputation and social status at stake. Unlike others, who felt a ‘distaste of life’ upon seeing Hyde, Jekyll felt a ‘leap of welcome’ whenever Hyde would surface because Hyde was like a separate, unknown channel through which Jekyll could satisfy his ‘lust for evil’.
The physical description of both, the protagonist and the antagonist, is very contradictory as well. While Jekyll was a ‘large, well-made’ and a ‘smooth-faced’ man, Hyde was ‘dwarfish’ and ‘hardly human’. The very sight of Hyde arouses fear in people because of his horrendous looks and weird stature. Hyde was ‘not only hellish but inorganic’. There is contradiction as he gave an impression of deformity although he was not and he was in fact very agile but his body looked tremendously weak. He was a ‘murderous mixture of timidity and boldness’. Apart from character, there was a major difference in their physical appearance as well. In the beginning Hyde is shown to be much smaller in stature than Jekyll and this shows that the evil in Jekyll was undernourished at first but as time passes, and the frequency of Hyde’s activities increase, so does the evil in Jekyll.
And finally, towards the end, we come to know that the stature of Hyde had increased in size, and this is significant of the fact that the evil in Jekyll had finally overpowered the good. Hyde’s hand too, stood pale in comparison with the hand of Jekyll’s. Jekyll’s hand was a healer’s hand, ‘professional in shape and size’. As was known to all, ‘it was large, firm, white and comely’. Whereas Hyde’s hand was totally opposite. It was ‘lean, corded, knuckly, of a dusky pallor, and thickly shaded with a swart growth of hair.’ Despite all the differences, and also being aware of peoples’ reaction towards Hyde, Jekyll still cared a lot about Hyde – it was more like a father and son relationship.
But for Hyde, it didn’t make a difference as he continued to use Jekyll as he had always been doing from the start. ‘Jekyll had more than a father’s interest, Hyde had more than a son’s indifference’. For Hyde, Jekyll was like a cave in which he could hide from the world. Jekyll didn’t want to admit it initially, but he delighted in the adventures of Hyde. He had taken his secret for granted and thought that he sat ‘beyond the reach of fate’. Gradually, the bestial part in him took over and Jekyll was well aware of this fact as he realizes that he was ‘slowly losing hold of my original and better self, and becoming slowly incorporated with my second and worse.’
Jekyll had known all along that by his experimenting, he was putting his life in danger and ‘risked death’. But at the same time, he was also excited by his discovery, which made him enjoy life to the fullest without the burden of responsibilities. It absolutely exhilarated him. ‘The temptation of a discovery so singular and profound at last overcame the suggestions of alarm.’
Stevenson also portrays the theme of duality in the minor characters of the book like Mr. Utterson and Dr. Lanyon. Utterson was a ‘man of rugged countenance’ and a lawyer by profession and also Jekyll’s friend, who later unravels the mystery. The duality in Utterson’s character is clearly seen in the opening lines itself. He was ‘never lighted by a smile’ and was ‘backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow lovable.’ Dr. Lanyon’s character too has shades of duality. He was boisterous and he was theatrical as well. Even his physical appearance is slightly contrasting. He was a ‘healthy, dapper, red-faced gentleman with a shock of hair prematurely white’.
His reaction to Jekyll’s discovery, i.e. the transcendental medicine, is contradictory as well. His reaction was a mixture of disapproval and curiosity. Since he was orthodox, and preferred to travel on the beaten path, he disapproved of Jekyll’s research as ‘scientific heresies’ but on the other hand, it was Lanyon’s curiosity that ultimately led to his death, as the truth was too shocking for him to bear. The harsh reality was unpalatable and to Lanyon, ‘death was an answer to the frightening realities of life’. Hyde’s servant, who was a woman, has a streak of duality in her character as well. She was a wicked woman, whose face was smoothed by hypocrisy. She had excellent manners but she was of a sadistic nature. In other words, she was a servant well suited for Hyde.
The theme of duality is emphasized through the setting. In the beginning of the story itself, we see the contradiction in the setting. The setting is of a ‘by street in a busy quarter of London’ where Utterson and his cousin, Enfield go for their Sunday walk. There is a contrast between the street and the neighborhood. ‘The street shone out in contrast to its dingy neighborhood, like a fire in a forest’. The city, too where the story takes place, is seemingly divided into two parts – the Old Town and the New Town and the atmosphere is totally different in both the towns. The respectable and the sophisticated gentlemen resided in the New Town but at night they went to the Old Town to indulge in their secret passions as the Old Town had gambling, sex etc. This shows the duality of the men of those times. Even the house of Jekyll has a contradictory appearance. The back door of the house ‘bore in every feature the marks of prolonged and sordid negligence’.
The house was a symbol of the human heart, as the house had no window. This corresponds with the mind’s inability to reach out to others. This is exactly what the problem had been with Jekyll. He had been unable to confide in anyone about his problem and if he had, the tragedy could have been averted. The door to the house was ‘equipped with neither bell nor knocker’ and was ‘blistered and distainted’. Another symbolic inanimate object in the story was the cabinet door in Jekyll’s house.
That door was the passage to the truth. Jekyll was hiding behind that door and was afraid to come out because Hyde could surface anytime and be in control of him. The door prevented the truth from being found out. The intense drama was going on at both sides of the door as on one side Utterson and Jekyll’s servant Poole were trying to break in and on the other side, Jekyll was trying to stay hidden. The two sides of the door could represent the two sides of the human personality. The door could also represent Jekyll’s evil side. Jekyll had nurtured and fostered the evil in him, so much that it was hard to break it down. Hence, Utterson and Poole had a tough time in breaking down the door.
The atmosphere of the book contributes to the increasing tension and suspense.The fog is symbolic too, and it symbolizes the fact that there is fog over people’s mind and eyes and it prevents them from seeing the truth. It also shows their inability to communicate with others. The fog keeps randomly covering up certain parts of London everytime and this represents the fact that Utterson kept getting close to the truth and yet was unable to put his finger on it. The truth was right under his nose and yet, he was unable to see it.
The language used by Stevenson is simple and easy to understand yet it is very effective and is lined with symbolic meanings. Many figures of speech have been made use of such as similes, metaphors and alliterations. Stevenson uses many striking similes such as ‘Hyde would pass away like a stain of breath upon a mirror’- to describe how Hyde would just be able to disappear and in his place, would be Jekyll. Another simile used is ‘as brown as umber’-Stevenson uses this to describe the fog of London. Even when comparing the street to the neighborhood, in the earlier chapters of the book, Stevenson says that the street stood in contrast to the neighborhood, ‘like a fire in a forest’. To describe what Jekyll could do as Hyde, Stevenson uses the metaphor ‘spring headlong into the sea of liberty’.
This effectively conveys the idea to the readers about the freedom Jekyll got by being Hyde. Many alliterations have been used as well. One such example is ‘bitter bad’ and this is used to describe Jekyll’s desperate need for the drug. Jekyll is also later referred to as a ‘double dealer’. The alliteration is also seen when Stevenson describes the character of Utterson – ‘lean, long, dusty, dreary’. Some of the names of the characters have a meaning as well.
For instance, the name of Hyde gives the readers an impression that the character is a mysterious, shady and a secretive one. Even the name of Jekyll’s servant, Poole, is significant. He was very loyal to his master and was hence, a pool of dark secrets. Stevenson also uses a pun in his story. This is used when Utterson goes hunting for Hyde. Utterson says that ‘If he be Mr. Hyde, I shall be Mr. Seek’. Stevenson has also cleverly made the use of animal imagery to describe Hyde. He says that Hyde had a ‘ape-like fury’ and a ‘hissing intake of breath’ and he ‘snarled aloud into savage laugh’ and he also had ‘light footsteps’ like animals do.
I think the story has contemporary relevance with its link to modern unethical medical practices such as genetic engineering and also cloning. The story of Jekyll can also be linked to the plight of a drug addict as Jekyll is shown to be getting more and more addicted to the ‘transforming draught’-just like the modern drug addict. But the consequences in both the cases are similar as in both cases, the person would regret it in the end -like Jekyll did and then there would be no way out, and it would be difficult for them to give it up, even if they wanted to.
Jekyll’s mistake was not only his addiction to the drug; it was also his temptation for evil. Wisdom demands that we should not go to frontiers where we are forbidden to do so. Forbidden knowledge must remain unknown, but Jekyll’s dabbling and experimenting crossed all borders and broke all frontiers. One of the messages that the book conveys is that goodness must always be vigilant in the battle against evil, otherwise evil will take command and that is exactly what had happened to Jekyll; which ultimately led to his downfall.
Another message that Stevenson tries to convey to the readers through his book is that no human being is totally good or bad- humans are a mixture of both. No one is black i.e. evil and no one is white i.e. good. Every person is a shade of gray. All humans do have an animal instinct in them and also a little evil. It’s just been caged in the depths of their personality. But once it comes out, it comes out ‘roaring’, as it has been suppressed for a long time. By stating this point, Stevenson directly attacks the myth of human perfectibility. The book also deals with the reconciliation of opposites. What Jekyll wanted was to have a good time and a good reputation as well and these are two things that never go together. You have to pay a price for everything and Jekyll escaped this by switching identities. But in the end, Jekyll had to pay a heavy price for his deeds- a price much more than what he had bargained for…