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How does Stevenson present the conflict between good and evil in 'Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde'?

‘Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ is a novella by Robert Louis Stevenson set in Victorian London and written in 1886. It can be said that Stevenson took ideas directly from his own experiences when creating the plot, as many aspects of the novella can be compared directly to his life. Stevenson grew up in Edinburgh, which had the same dramatic contrast between the rich and the poor sides as the London in which ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ is set and it is clear that he was influenced by the things he saw when going about his every day life; the divide between wealth and poverty.

The idea of the unhappily conflicted personality of Jekyll could easily be based upon himself; the young Stevenson aspired to become a writer but this profession was looked down on by society as writers were seen as leading immoral and hedonistic lifestyles. His parents certainly disapproved of his choice and wanted him to pursue a more respectable career.

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Stevenson decided to take a law degree, but did not stop writing, thereby creating for himself a double life.

The genre of the book is gothic horror and could also be said to have elements of science fiction. One clear influence would be ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley, written in 1818. This, like ‘Jekyll and Hyde’, has themes of the worrying developments in science and compromising morality as well as controversial comments on society. Another source of inspiration is the 1859 book by Charles Darwin: ‘Origin of the Species’ in which Darwin looks in depth at the ideas of evolution.

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This book was particularly shocking since it suggested that all human beings were once animals, which were believed to not have souls. Such an outrageous statement clearly contradicted the views of the religious majority.

The period in which ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ was written is important because of the rigid morals held by most people in Victorian England. There were clear divides between classes, where the rich and the poor were considered as almost complete different races. This meant that there was a great deal of hypocrisy; respected unmarried men were often encouraged to meet with prostitutes but the women themselves were considered as disgustingly immoral. People had prejudices against anybody who looked strange or different, strongly adhering to the idea of physiognomy; that a person’s personality could be defined by their appearance. This was also a time where many new breakthroughs were being made in science and people were beginning to worry about the moral side of what was being done, and fearing that scientists were attempting to concern themselves with divine matters. This meant that scientists were often not very well thought of.

The main theme in ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ is the divide of good and evil and the duality of mankind. This was particularly relevant in the society of the time as several characters were beginning to emerge that had appeared respectable members of society and turned out to be less than perfect. The most famous example of this is Jack the Ripper, who was believed to be a surgeon or at least have detailed anatomical knowledge. Other examples are Burke and Hare, two infamous men who sold stolen bodies and then victims that they themselves had murdered to be used in medical research. This was highly disturbing, particularly since their main client Dr Knox must have known that the bodies they were receiving did not come from moral sources. Another example in the society of the time was Deacon Brodie, a respected cabinet maker who was also a skilled burglar.

‘Jekyll and Hyde’ tells the story of wealthy doctor Henry Jekyll, whose ideas that a human being had both good and evil inside them led him to attempting to split up a person’s personality. His experiment worked, however not entirely as he would have wanted, as he had managed to create and physically transform into a personification of his own malignance who he dubbed ‘Edward Hyde.’

He soon discovered that the reckless lack of morals and fury of Hyde were highly addictive and he found himself going about under the guise of his other self and committing atrocities. Eventually he realised that he was being rapidly taken over by Hyde and was unable to give him up. He was also running out of the drug that enabled him to transform back into Jekyll, and he discovered to his horror that he could not recreate the original mixture. He wrote an account of what had happened to his friend, Gabriel Utterson, and then committed suicide to kill both himself and Hyde.

The different elements of the plot fit together seamlessly, and at times this appears a little too coincidental such as a letter to Utterson being found upon the murdered Danvers Carew and Utterson so easily being able to find out that Jekyll and Hyde had such similar handwriting through his clerk Guest.

Instead of using Jekyll as the storyteller, Stevenson uses an embedded narrative by having Utterson as the main narrator. This means that we see the story from the perspective of somebody who is not directly involved and therefore means that the reader does not see the full truth until the end when everything is explained from the viewpoint of the doctor Lanyon and then Jekyll himself. This adds realism to the story, as each narrator is a completely different character. For example, Lanyon’s description of events is much more factual and Jekyll’s uses intelligent metaphors and detailed imagery. The narrative is achronological, meaning that the story is not portrayed in chronological order. Rather, we experience the tale with Utterson first, and then are filled in on events that happened previously by Lanyon, and finally told all that had happened by Jekyll, starting from long before we were first introduced into the plot. This means that we are almost plunged into the narrative ‘in media res’ as we start off from the middle of the story.

While Lanyon and Jekyll give us clear first person accounts, Utterson is described in the third person, and this helps us to understand the flaws of his personality and therefore understand him more. It gives us a less biased perspective as we are enabled to make up our own opinions as well as learning Utterson’s views on what is happening. Stevenson wants us to trust Utterson as a person so that we will trust his judgment, giving him a dull and controlled personality so that his perceptions will appear more likely and lead us to making false conclusions so that the actual outcome of the tale is a complete shock to us as well as to Utterson. His narrative makes the story more believable than if we had been told everything directly by Jekyll and also builds up tension and mystery as the lawyer goes out of his way to piece together the trouble his friend is in as well as the profile of the elusive Mr. Hyde.

The character that the whole novella is circled around is Dr Henry Jekyll, who is first presented to us as a wealthy man of good taste. A small doubt to his character is put forward as he is described as “something of a slyish cast perhaps” but then insisting that he was “every mark of capacity and kindness.” Since Utterson had already suggested to us that Jekyll is in some kind of trouble, we are more likely to feel sorry for him. This is further increased by Jekyll’s apparent terror when Utterson mentions Hyde. He therefore appears as a fairly weak person who is being manipulated by Hyde.

We learn a lot more about him when we read his first person account. Jekyll’s flaws become more obvious and we realise that he is not as he originally appeared. His language shows us that he is extremely intelligent and insightful, and idealistic enough to believe that his reckless experiments could change mankind for the better. He does appear fairly weak in character, as he clearly enjoyed the new feelings that being Hyde allowed him. He says that he “felt younger, lighter, happier in body; within I was conscious of a heady recklessness, a current disordered sensual images running like a mill race in my fancy, a solution out of the bonds of obligation, and unknown but not an innocent freedom of the soul.”

Clearly, he found it refreshing to be able to take the body of a younger and fitter man, particularly one who was not governed by moral boundaries. He continued to take the potion even though he knew that his new self was purely evil until he could not stop, which shows that he was acting for himself now instead of continuing his research. He keeps himself free from guilt by not accepting any responsibility for Hyde’s crimes, insisting “it was Hyde, after all, and Hyde alone, that was guilty.” Therefore, he completely disassociates his other half from himself. He appeared to feel remorse for the murder of Sir Danvers Carew, but then decided that it was wholly Hyde’s fault and all that he had to do was use this as an excuse for no longer becoming Hyde, which shows him to be a hypocrite.

But he also becomes distanced from his original self, referring to Jekyll in the first person and seeing the visage of the doctor as just as much of a mask as becoming Hyde, talking about the two halves of himself as equals despite Hyde being completely malignant while Jekyll was a “composite.” This would mean that evil was the greatest force and he had inadvertently moved “toward the worse” as he feared after the first transformation. He actually considers staying as Hyde for the rest of his life when forced to make a choice, but decides that he prefers to be Jekyll, well-liked and a man of reputation. Despite being taken over almost entirely by Hyde, Jekyll still has the strength to end his own life and thereby killing Hyde.

Jekyll speaks in a respectful manner when addressing others, but we do not really learn much about him before the first person account. Here, it is clear that he is a man of excellent schooling and with a wide imagination. His language is flowing and descriptive, using metaphors such as “the Babylonian finger on the wall” and analysing ideas in psychology that were beyond his time, in fact also beyond Stevenson’s.

To the reader, Jekyll represents the average man. He is curious and ambitious, and often feels conflicted from the strains of his life. He is tempted by pleasure, and makes the wrong decisions due to this. Also, he appears as quite proud and egotistical, thinking that his clever tricks can keep him out of trouble and that he is completely safe. This leads him to his own downfall.

Hyde is the physical embodiment of the evil element of mankind. He is utterly immoral and feels absolutely no regret for any of the dissolute crimes he commits, in fact he is delighted by them. For example when he kills Danvers Carew, he “mauled the unresisting body, tasting delight from every blow.” His appearance is very important as everybody who meets him instantly dislikes him although they do not quite know how. He is described as “pale and dwarfish; he gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation.” Jekyll supposes that Hyde’s small stature is due to him only being a part of a whole; the personification of one aspect of Jekyll’s character.

The immediate hatred he provokes when he comes into contacts with others shows how he has an aura of profligacy that can be sensed even when there is no reason to dislike him. For example, when Lanyon met him for the first time knowing nothing about him, he says that he too was filled with the same irrational hatred, telling Utterson that he was surprised by “the odd, subjective disturbance caused by his neighbourhood.” In fact, the only person not repulsed by Hyde is Jekyll himself, whose first response to his other half was “a leap of welcome,” although in time he grows to truly hate him.

Hyde does not care about anybody, but he clearly cares about his own welfare as he takes measures to protect himself from capture after committing crimes, and is afraid of death. This is clear when Jekyll says that Hyde commits “temporary suicide” by returning to Jekyll’s body and safety. Hyde does not hate Jekyll in himself, but hates being imprisoned inside him and that Jekyll has the strength to cage him and destroy him. He cannot hurt Jekyll without hurting himself, so resorts to showing his loathing of Jekyll by playing childish spiteful tricks on him.

Jekyll describes Hyde as “ape-like” and “troglodytic,” suggesting that he is not only inhuman but pre-human. This takes ideas from the theory of evolution by Darwin, and could mean that Hyde is a step back in evolution and therefore fuelled by natural instincts rather than carefully considered thought. His emotions are very extreme; he is filled with a mixture of rage, joy and fear. He tends to act on impulse by striking out when he is enraged without any thought of the consequences. This idea of Hyde being more of a beast than a human being also plays with the ideas of religious Victorians that animals did not have souls and would not go to heaven.

Hyde converses with others with a cold sarcastic politeness, speaking courteously enough unless angered. He is not initially rude when forced into a conversation with Utterson, but may have recognised him as a friend of Jekyll who it would not be wise to draw attention from. His temper flares very easily, and he can do anything when this happens. He is in a furious mood when Jekyll lets him takes control again, and this leads to his attack on Danvers Carew. When he is caught in public without his potion, he strikes a woman in the face for attempting to talk with him, and is close to assaulting the driver of a cab taking him to safety. He uses sharp plosives such as “blasted by a prodigy” and using short sentences which gives the impression of faster and more violent speech.

Gabriel Utterson is the first character introduced to the reader. He is described as being “slow in sentiment, lean, long, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow lovable,” which makes him sound to be a very uninteresting person but adds a positive adjective so that he isn’t perceived as having a bad personality. Stevenson introduces him first to add realism to the impossible plot and to get the reader to place their trust in him as a person, not just as a narrator.

He is reserved and doesn’t like to get involved, proven when he said “I let my brother go to the devil his own way.” However, this original philosophy is reverted when he is told about Hyde and realises that his close friend Jekyll must be in trouble. Utterson ends up being the one most involved in Jekyll’s problems, actively seeking out Hyde and looking for answers. He does not like to gossip, and agrees with Enfield that speaking less about things is a good idea. Utterson appears to think that reputation is of great importance and he barely changes his stiff routine even during emergencies such as Carew’s death.

Utterson appears to be well-liked and trustable in general, as both Jekyll and Lanyon regard him as a good friend and it is said that “hosts loved to detain the dry lawyer.” Utterson does not make friends easily, but “his affections, like ivy, were the growth of time;” he makes friends for life. This shows with how he worries about Jekyll.

The effect Hyde has on such a boring man is remarkable, as Utterson is filled with fear and curiosity despite not having even met the man yet. He begins to suffer from lack of sleep as he ponders his friend’s predicament, picturing Hyde as some kind of demon with a terrible power over Jekyll. This shows that even though Utterson is not a very imaginative man, he is conjuring up images of this unknown monster which frighten him. He seems to be a brave man when searching for and then facing Hyde, especially as he begins to learn what the man is capable of, which proves him to be quite a selfless person when it comes to helping his friends despite what he had originally said about keeping out of other people’s business.

Dr Hastie Lanyon is a mutual friend of Jekyll and Utterson, and his help is required by Hyde in order to transform back into Jekyll when he transforms in Regent’s Park without his potion. The shock of seeing the depraved Hyde physically becoming his friend Jekyll causes Lanyon to become very ill and he dies soon after. Lanyon is described as a “hearty, healthy, dapper, red-faced gentle-man” the first time he is shown to the reader, but by the time of his death he had become “pale; his flesh had fallen away; he was visibly balder and older” which shows the effects of discovering Jekyll’s secret.

Lanyon is a doctor of empirical science and clearly disapproves of Jekyll’s wild ideas. He claims that Jekyll “began to go wrong, wrong in mind” and calls his work “unscientific balderdash.” This implies that Jekyll had told Lanyon some of his ideas, and the disagreement over this had separated the two friends. Hyde taunts Lanyon about this when about to take the potion to turn back into Jekyll, saying “you have denied the virtue of transcendental medicine, you who have derided your superiors.” Despite Hyde playing on the rift between them, Jekyll still greatly respects Lanyon and apparently the reaction of his friend affected him a lot more than Carew’s murder.

Just as Hyde represents evil in the story, Lanyon represents good. He is jovial, kind, and although he had a grudge against Jekyll due to the unusual experiments he is carrying out, it seems likely that he would in due course forgive him. He does still consider Jekyll his friend, despite often referring to him as insane and apparently not trusting him. The knowledge of exactly what his friend had become destroyed him completely, and he became too afraid to speak of it or even to sleep. He tells Utterson that he knows that he is dying and seems to have resigned himself to the fact, but says that he will “die incredulous” as the horrific scene he had witnessed defied all scientific logic that the sensible man could ever consider. He cannot cope with the impossible reality of what he has seen.

Jekyll’s butler Poole is of a lower class than the other characters and consequently uses non-standard English. However, Stevenson contradicts the common assumption that common servants were ignorant and foolish by making Poole, although uneducated, a fairly clever character. Poole has picked up on the problems his master is having, and has begun to try and work out what is going on. He has realised that Hyde is in the house in Jekyll’s place, and attempts to argue his intuition against Utterson’s wistful logic, with Poole turning out to be right. Poole turns out to be a useful character, helping bring Utterson to discover the truth.

Another critique of society’s views is the character Enfield, described as a “well-known man about town,” who is of upper class and yet appears to be not exactly perfect. Enfield tells Utterson that he was “coming home from some place at the end of the world, about three o’clock [in the morning],” casually implying that he was visiting somewhere unsuitable; a popular pastime that the wealthy glossed over.

Stevenson uses a great deal of language techniques to put across the sinister tale of ‘Jekyll and Hyde.’ He starts the novel with a description of the narrator Utterson and his friend Enfield, using humour when he tells the reader about the apparent incompatibility between the men and how they insisted on going on walks that neither of them appeared to enjoy. This is effective because Enfield’s story is a good way to lead into the main tale, and we are thereby introduced to a few crucial elements of the story. For example, the back door which leads to Jekyll’s laboratory, although this isn’t revealed until later on. It appears to ruin the appearance of the street, a blemish on an aesthetically pleasing area, drawing in unsavoury characters such as the homeless and rowdy children.

The whole idea of the two doors is a clever metaphor for the theme of good against evil, as Hyde could enter through the decrepit back of the house and emerge from the front as Jekyll. Stevenson employs many similar metaphors, such as the use of physiognomy to suggest Hyde’s malevolence and by describing Lanyon, making him sound a kind and cheerful man. Lanyon also has “a shock of hair prematurely white”, the colour white carrying with it connotations of purity and strengthening his character. Hyde’s visage is hidden by a mask when moving around Jekyll’s house, symbolising Jekyll’s longing to keep his devil hidden away. Another technique used is the image of angry citizens crowding around the cold, sneering Hyde, each one filled with “the desire to kill him;” Hyde’s unnatural air of evil turning the normally docile women into “harpies” that had to be held back lest they attack him. This works well as it opposes the gender roles in society.

One of the most effective tools Stevenson uses is the weather. The first instance of this is during Hyde’s first appearance; it takes place in early morning where everywhere is eerily quiet and dark. It is also night-time when Danvers Carew is killed, this time a full moon which often symbolises unearthly happenings, although the maid who had witnessed the murder contradicts this idea by saying that she had never felt more at peace with the world. When Utterson takes the policeman to Hyde’s house in Soho, it is “the first fog of the season,” relevant to the previous events since this was Hyde’s first murder and his character was becoming worse and worse in the eye of the reader. The idea of fog creates very vivid imagery, and could be taken as a metaphor for the shrouded truth about Hyde.

The mist is broken in some places by sunlight, which could symbolise the hope still left that hasn’t yet been swallowed by darkness. This whole scene has been personified; the fog almost appearing like a creature battling with the wind that was aggressively attempting to drive it away. This scene is suitably supernatural; Utterson describes it as “a district of some city in a nightmare.” This pathetic fallacy is subverted when Jekyll is in Regent’s Park and transforms into Hyde; it was a blissful, sunny day with all the frost having melted away and “sweet with Spring odours.” This does not seem like a setting for any villainy, but this is where Hyde appears again, which shows that evil can now happen in beautiful places.

The pace of the story depends upon who is telling it, but it is generally slow paced. However, this changes during scenes of action, which builds up tension. The sentences are complex during descriptions, often in a few parts with colons or semi-colons to break them up, but during faster scenes this changes into short sentences with alliteration and plosives and usually more dialogue. This builds the pace of the text and engages the reader.

‘Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ has very universal themes of the good and evil elements of every human being, which means that it just as relevant today as it was when it was written, even if the points put across are less controversial. Stevenson deals with theories of subconscious thought, seen when Jekyll becomes Hyde in his sleep which would suggest that humans are more mentally conscious when asleep, an idea which still hasn’t been completely worked out today. This was very advanced as nobody had yet begun to develop these ideas, until 1901 when Freud published a thesis on the unconscious mind.

It is clear in the story that Jekyll quickly grows to hate his creation, but is unable to give it up. This can easily be seen as analogous to modern addictions such as drugs and alcohol, which can seem wonderful in the beginning and then quickly take over your life as Hyde did until it seems impossible to stop. The same patterns can be traced between the feelings from substance abuse and Jekyll’s addiction to the feelings and emotions he felt being Hyde, which shows that this is still very relevant in today’s society.

Like Jekyll, modern scientists are being criticized for their research, such as cloning and work into genetics. Some people argue that they are meddling with God’s work, and even those who are not religious may say that this kind of research is immoral and wrong, or that it could lead to problems like diseases if our whole natural system is changed artificially. Even if this does not happen, sometimes human beings can go too far with what they think is right. The thirst for success can often blind people to what they actually want to achieve, for example a scientist working on perfecting human cloning may be purely working for the glory of the discovery rather than improving the world by his findings. This is human arrogance, which was Jekyll’s weakness.

I think that the message in Jekyll and Hyde is that although evil dwells naturally within everybody, it can be overcome and that we all have the strength to overcome it. Jekyll’s pride caused his inner demons to take on a life of their own in Hyde, and although it cost him his own life, Jekyll’s morals and conscience were the victor in the end. Stevenson was trying to put forward the idea that humans are not either good or evil, nor are we sane or insane, but we are all the same to being with, built up of different emotions, thoughts and feeling which can lead us one way or another depending on our upbringing, choices, experiences and actions. So although everybody has a potential for evil, they also have a potential for good, and power to overcome evil.

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How does Stevenson present the conflict between good and evil in 'Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde'?. (2017, Nov 04). Retrieved from

How does Stevenson present the conflict between good and evil in 'Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde'?

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