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Why would a Victorian reader find “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” shocking yet fascinating?
Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Jekyll and Hyde in 1886 in the middle of the Victorian era. This book is both shocking yet fascinating to a Victorian reader, I will explore this further. “Polar twins … continually struggling,” this quotation is talking about the struggle between Jekyll and Hyde; they are struggling to gain dominance over each other in Jekyll’s body. They are polar twins, Jekyll is good and Hyde is Evil, this quotation shows that Jekyll and Hyde are linked, and this idea that they are linked in body and soul would be shocking to a reader yet it would also be fascinating because it shows the dual nature of man, the ability to do good and evil.
There are many themes in Jekyll and Hyde that a Victorian reader would find shocking and fascinating at the same time, like Science vs. religion, civilisation vs. savagery, the dual identity of man, the way Stevenson portrays London, the gothic elements of the story, and the description of the characters and their relationships.
Jekyll manipulates science to resurface the dual identity of man, only God should be able to do this, Jekyll is going against his god and dwells on the thought of committing suicide to get rid of Hyde, a Victorian reader would find this shocking because almost all Victorian people at this time were devout Christians and committing suicide was against the laws of the church and even the thought of someone committing suicide was shocking to a Victorian. Also the ongoing debate between the church and scientists about Darwin’s theory of evolution surfaces in Jekyll and Hyde, this is a case of Religion vs. science.
Dr Lanyon and Jekyll debate about this in the book, a Victorian reader would find these ideas fascinating. The book is also focused on temptation, Adam and Eve were tempted by the tree of Knowledge and were then thrown out of the Garden of Eden and Jekyll is also tempted by the knowledge “that man is not truly one but truly two,” Science undermines the church by the theory of evolution. Victorian readers would find this fascinating, as well as the parallels between the Garden of Eden story and Jekyll’s life.
Civilisation vs. savagery is shown in where people live, Hyde lives in Soho in London, Soho is one of the worst parts of London, and it is the barbaric part of London where prostitution, drug dealing, gambling, lots of violence. This is Hyde’s world and it shows his character and nature. Hyde is violent, evil dark, twisted like Soho. A Victorian reader would find this fascinating that the area he lives in reflects his personality. Lanyon lives in Mayfair, this shows his rich civilised character and Jekyll lives in an area of working class apartments but lives in a whole house, a reader would find it shocking why Jekyll lives in such a poor area but as the read the book the see that this area reflects him, and because he is a doctor of science who dissects bodies he is probably frowned on in public and by higher classes. This makes the reader question the respectability of Jekyll. The reader would find this shocking and fascinating that the areas that they live in reflect their character.
The idea of the dual identity of man would be shocking to a reader because a Victorian person wouldn’t have heard of this before; they would also find it very interesting even if they don’t believe in it. “Man is not truly one but truly two,” it shows that man is split into two parts, one part that is wholly good and odes good things and another part that is wholly evil.
The idea that “Hyde alone in the ranks of mankind was pure evil,” comes up from the dual nature. The reader would find this fascinating that someone could be pure evil yet they would also be shocked by it, that this person would do evil things like kill people. Also the fact that Jekyll and Hyde share only one body would be shocking because man is supposed to be in two parts but they only share one body, Hyde is “caged” within Jekyll, so a potion is needed to turn them into each other and back again, a Victorian person would find this fascinating because of the fact that a potion might be able to do what only God has been able to do before.
London is portrayed as a city covered by a “great chocolate covered pall,” for at this time smog was common over London. Areas like Soho are shown in more detail and the area around Jekyll’s house as well. “All sorts of conditions of men… shady lawyers…obscure enterprises” these are some of the descriptions of things around Jekyll’s house. A reader would find it shocking that the capital of an empire which spanned a quarter of the known world is described as sordid and black and dirty and covered with a thick blanket of smog.
The gothic elements of the novella help make the book more interesting to the reader and it gives suspense to some of the scenes and makes them more vivid, using short sentences to give a strong atmosphere of tension and all of the descriptive words are dark, using dark colours like black and setting some of the scarier scenes at night to make it darker and more gothic.
This would pull the reader in and make him fascinated by the detailed descriptions of what is happening. Also some of the descriptions of the characters especially Hyde are very gothic, “with a kind of black sneering coolness…really like Satan.” Hyde is described as the devil. A reader would find this shocking because at first they would believe that Hyde is a normal person, but to be described as the devil must mean he is very evil and later on they find out that he is pure evil a part of a conscience and not a whole person, a reader would find this shocking and would disgust them as well
Jekyll and Hyde is talked about by critics as a “magnificent piece of sensationalism,” which means that Jekyll and Hyde was a magnificent story and would be very fascinating to readers in the Victorian era. All of the different themes of the story add to this idea that Jekyll and Hyde is shocking and fascinating to readers.
They would be fascinated and shocked by some of the ideas of science and the opposing ideas of religion. They would be interested by the theme of civilisation vs. savagery and shocked by some of the points. They would be shocked by Jekyll’s ideas of the dual nature of man yet because they haven’t heard of it before they would be fascinated by it. The way Stevenson portrays London would shock them and all of the gothic elements which enhance the story would help the readers appreciate Jekyll and Hyde more.
“The strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” is a book that is both shocking yet fascinating to Victorian readers.