The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Essay
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“Discuss the author’s theme of the duality of man and the techniques he employs to convey this to the reader.”
Robert Louis Stevenson was one of the most pioneering authors of his time, and is seen in the modern literary world as an author of extraordinary human understanding and an author who wrote way ahead of his time. His knowledge of the era in which he lived is now seen as praiseworthy, as his themes were often underwritten with the tones of the era that he wished to address.
‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ has such clarity in theme and message that it is, upon reflection, an effective insight into human nature.
The novella begins with the introduction of the character who becomes the narrator of the story – Mr Utterson. His friend, Mr Enfield, tells him a story about a mysterious man who trampled a small girl by night. This intrigues Mr Utterson, and soon links between this man, named Hyde, and a respectable doctor (and a friend of Utterson) named Jekyll. Utterson immediately believes Hyde is blackmailing Jekyll, but as the story unravels, we discover Jekyll and Hyde is actually the same person. Jekyll eventually realises he will succumb to the power of his alter-ego, and debates what Hyde will do after his potion runs out – it is revealed midway through the novella that he takes his own life.
Stevenson’s use of the theme of duality of man is one of the most effectively hidden, but most profound, studies into human character in Victorian literature, and the author uses the intelligent character of Jekyll to self-chronicle the change that take place. This becomes apparent in the early stages of the novella, when Jekyll asserts that the human soul could be seen as a ‘battleground’ between an ‘angel and fiend’. This shows Jekyll’s self-awareness and, despite this, Jekyll still succumbs to the evil will of Hyde. This could be explained by another section of his own narrative, in which he sees ‘no repugnance’ as he sees himself as Hyde for the first time, and even that it is ‘rather of a leap of welcome’.
This is the polar opposite of the feelings of the others in the story who witness Hyde physically, all of whom describe Hyde as offensively ugly and deformed. This highlights that every man harbours a secret willingness to commit these crimes and see themselves without the morals and civil attitude we abide by. One of the most clear hints at the author’s main theme comes with the final chapter in the novella, and once again Jekyll’s narrative. He insists, repeatedly, that man is ‘not one, but two’, and he then goes to describe how he has always had an inner darkness that he has repressed. The importance of Jekyll as the one of the main ambassador’s of Stevenson’s theme in the story is obvious and it can even be said that Jekyll personifies the thoughts of Stevenson and his ideas.
Stevenson’s effective use of setting and contrasts in this setting is another key method he utilises to illustrate the split personality of Jekyll and Hyde. London is frequently described very fully and with a lot of detail in the novella, however the descriptions are not consistent and reflect the mood of the main character. In the middle of the novel, when Hyde murders Sir Danvers Carew in cold blood at night, London is full of a ‘glow of rich, lurid brown’ through the eyes of Mr Utterson, suggesting that the darkness and evil of Hyde is beginning to taint London’s very atmosphere, much like Jekyll’s steady tainting of his own body.
As the narrative progresses, a ‘thick fog’ begins to descend upon the city, which progresses as Hyde’s reign of senseless murder, and Jekyll’s crisis of control over his alter-ego, deepens. At the beginning of the story, though, London is described as ‘bustling centre of commerce’. Clearly, the author uses the setting as another means of allowing the reader subtle access to the changes between Jekyll and Hyde.
Often throughout the novel, the characters who are speaking or narrating, or even the third-person narrator, refuse to communicate their fears or disgust at what is occurring. Such failure of articulation is present even from the start, as Utterson and Enfield refuse to discuss the nature of Hyde’s personal appearance and characteristics. Whilst this could be easily be attributed to natural disgust at Hyde’s physicalities, further similar events cannot be explained so easily. The most apparent example of this rejection of language comes when Hyde’s ‘sordid behaviour’ and his life vices are not described.
This could be due to the period in which it is written – Victorian society was one of ignorance and self-promotion as opposed to truth – although this explanation doesn’t cover it completely. More likely is that Stevenson wanted to expose this nuance of his era that he had a dislike for, and wanted to allow the majority of the horror of Hyde to be personal to the reader, to allow them to decide just how far the duality of man could be applied to them – placing a definite article on Hyde’s most appalling aspects would allow the reader to convince themselves that this split personality does not affect them, whereas leaving it open does not give them this comfort barrier.
Amorality is one way of interpreting Jekyll’s split personality, as Hyde seems to represent Jekyll without his moral barrier and reputation to uphold; however, this could also be interpreted as immorality – the crucial difference is the knowledge that the moral boundaries exist in the first place. It is never quite clear if Hyde realises what he is doing is wrong, suggesting amorality, however the fact he takes ‘great pleasure’ in killing suggests much the opposite – immorality.
Even though Hyde is often referred to as being ‘animalistic’ in appearance and nature – Utterson even describes him as a ‘troglodyte’, a very primitive creature – his pent-up anger and frustration that is always released in a shocking way is immediately applicable to most urban readers – leading to the shocking revelation that Stevenson not only hints at man’s duality, but as civilisation as a whole – on the outside, it is amicable and genial, but inside it harbours fury and madness. This is another effective method of demonstrating the stark contrasts in human nature and the duality of our very being.
The ambiguity of Stevenson’s overall message actually becomes another method of enhancing its effectiveness. The actual duality of man could be described as being a complete contrast – that is, we are all Jekylls with a Hyde waiting below our civilised faï¿½ade. Clearly, this would show that the interrelation between the characters is the most affecting and thought-provoking part of the novel. However, the other interpretation of the theme, equally backed up with evidence, is that we are all, in essence, one hundred percent Hyde with a veneer of civilisation in Jekyll.
The fact that, in the text, Jekyll eventually loses all control of his transformation into Hyde and, eventually, any semblance of his old self altogether, is proof of this. This is the much more shocking of the two possibilities, suggesting that our very world is a cover and humans left to their most immoral and animalistic devices are akin to the revolting Hyde. The combination of possibilities left unsolved at the end of the novella makes the theme much more compelling and intriguing as the hints left question the society in which people live, as well as challenging them strongly and directly.
‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ is a perfect example of a well thought-out, universally applicable and well-written story. Stevenson has set out from the beginning to make a story that will not just live long in the memory of the reader like so many other themes, but rather it will challenge the reader to search themselves for the personality traits that make Hyde such a revolting, but strangely fascinating, character to study. The duality of man is a theme that could be covered with an indirect and abstract plotline but Stevenson’s choice of making the thriller so personal and penetrating has changed the way the authors of today relate to the reader and communicate their themes.