How does Robert Louis Stevenson use contemporary Victorian issues in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”? Essay
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Robert Louis Stevenson manages to blur the lines of reality in his novella, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” He does this by adding in small and, occasionally, well concealed ideas and themes of the Victorian era. This includes things like the level of crime in 1800s London and comparisons between Mr. Hyde and Jack the Ripper, London’s most notorious serial killer ever. It also shows how the Victorian middle and upper class sought respectability and on the outside, appeared to be upstanding members of the community.
However, many engaged in less than respectable acts such as meeting prostitutes and taking drugs such as opium in the many dens in the East End of London. This is very similar to the double life of Jekyll and Hyde lead. But some of the story’s plot can be traced back to how Edinburgh, Stevenson’s birth place and where he grew up.
Stevenson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland on 13th November, 1850. He was the son of a light house engineer who saw Robert following in his footsteps. However, he took an interest in writing and became an author who studied at the University of Edinburgh. This is possibly where some of the inspiration came from for the book. As with all cities, Edinburgh had its more impoverished end. This, like the East End, had the opium dens and prostitutes that were so popular with the higher echelons of society. Stevenson may have seen this during his childhood and studying there and included it in his book. These themes that shaped Stevenson’s, some of which I’ve already mentioned, shaped the book.
As I have said, crime in Victorian Britain played a huge part in both life and the book. The horrific Jack the Ripper murders hadn’t taken place long before the book was written. These would have played a major part in the writing of the darker aspects of the book. Although these crimes took place hundreds of miles from his home but they could have had a major effect on the way Stevenson viewed things. They were, after all, brutal murders that still fascinate people today, from all across the globe. There were also other murders of the time that were gruesome and captivated the Victorians imagination. This influence is show in chapter 4 when, right at the begging, Stevenson begins to explain the actions of the murder.
“London was startled by a crime of singular ferocity.” This is very similar to the Jack the Ripper cases in the sense that people were stunned by how gruesome they were. In the next section, it describes the action of the murder and just how horrifying it was. “Mr. Hyde broke out of all bounds and clubbed him to the earth. And next moment, with ape-like fury, he was trampling his victim under foot and hailing down a storm of blows, under which the bones were audibly shattered and the body jumped upon the roadway.” This level of graphic detail made the murder seem almost unbearable to the reader sometimes causing distress but always making the book stick in their mind.
The Victorian middle and upper classes need to look respectable was a driving force in many of their activities. Many tried to present the image of being an upstanding member of the community while secretly being drunks, clients of prostitutes and drug addicts. They tried their best to keep this side of their lives quite by only visiting these places at night or making sure they were far from home. They also tried to show themselves as being a nice person by doing things for certain charities and being teetotal.
This of course was not true and they did regularly engage in things that would be deemed as unfit for a gentleman of high standing. This was very similar to Jekyll who, even without the aid of Hyde, would indulge his darker side by doing many of the afore mentioned activates. This had the effect of making Hyde come out without the use of the potion. However, with Hyde, he would often go further with random acts of violence on unknown people. Hyde represented a complete collapse in law and order, a step back in the evolutionary chain. This may also have been a guiding light in Stevenson’s writings.
Charles Darwin’s paper “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life” was one of the most controversial scientific theories ever published. When released in 1859, many people didn’t believe and, along with many other scientific discoveries, the church tried to ban it. It stated how through means of natural selection, only the fittest and best adapted to the environment. This is true of Hyde in a slightly backwards way. He was a step backwards in the sense that he was closer to a Neanderthal than a Homo Sapien. However, Hyde is a step forward in the sense that he could be the next step, despite appearing further back than the rest of the human population. This is quite a worrying though that Human’s may be a step too far in the evolutionary chain. This can be seen as a direct attack on evolution by Stevenson as he tries to show how, in some cases, the evolutionary chain breaks down.
In conclusion, Stevenson uses the current news articles and views of the time to create a world which is in two worlds. One is the fictional London in which Hyde walks the streets, the other a London which really did exist. By creating this overlap, he made people feel like hey were involved, like what was happening in the book really could happen in real life. This may have been what made it a great success. However, one other theory that states that, at the time of writing the novella, Stevenson was high on cocaine and did not stop writing for 3 days. This throws in the question could all of the supposed ideas and views drawn from real life just be a drug educed haze? While there is no concrete proof of this, it is quite interesting to think that one of the world’s greatest stories could be nothing more than the hallucinations of a junkie. Whether this is true or not, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” remains one of the greatest books ever written.