While Stevenson’s ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ is a reflection of the times in which it is set in, it also has considerable relevance for the modern reader. Do you agree?
‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ by R. L. Stevenson was first published in 1886, during the Victorian era. The novel gives the reader a very vivid picture of the ideas and lifestyles of the people in that time. The book is a reflection of times and has considerable relevance for the modern reader.
I partially agree with the fact that the book has relevance for the modern reader.
Stevenson’s main inspiration for ‘The strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ came from the life of Deacon William Brodie. He moved easily among the gentry during the day and exalted in criminal escapades at night. He was a respected member of the Town Council, and his talents as a cabinet-maker were well known and appreciated by wealthy members of society. By night he roamed the dark and dangerous streets of Edinburgh. He frequently visited many gambling and whore houses. His life was one of great interest at the time, especially after his capture. The interest in Brodie’s life even inspired Stevenson to write a play about his life, this relates to the increasing interest in horror stories in today’s world. The mystery of his death still lingers, while interest about his life continues to grow.
In 1859, a book called ‘On the Origin of Species’ by Charles Darwin was published. The book inserted into the minds of the Victorian people that man had evolved from apes. Hence we see the frequent references to Mr. Hyde’s animal characteristics through out the book. The author makes Mr. Hyde seem less than a fully evolved man, more akin to animals than the rest of mankind and he portrays this through the imagery of Mr. Hyde’s animalism. When Mr. Utterson first confronts him outside the laboratory entrance to Dr. Jekyll’s house, he is said to be taking in breath with a “hissing” sound, like that of a snake being cornered. Poole, Dr. Jekyll’s butler, describes his cry like that of “a rat” and his movements “like a monkey”; his screams are described “as mere animal terror”.
In his ‘Full Statement of the Case’ Dr. Jekyll says that his indulgent life which was “chained down, began to growl”, just like an animal that has been chained down for a long time. He also says that his dual personality is like “the animal within me licking the chops of memory”. The Victorian readers would be very familiar with these descriptions of people. But a modern reader wouldn’t agree with the fact that man had evolved from apes as science has proved that isn’t so. But we do see the animal in man taking over our actions, as we have seen the inhuman treatment delivered to soldiers by their fellow soldiers in the World Wars. Suicide bombers and terrorist attacks too are modern actions depicting the beast in man taking over the human personality.
‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ also reflects the hypocrisy of the Victorian era. Being an MP, his death would have aroused a lot of curiosity among the people. By assisting Mr. Utterson, Inspector Newman’s name would be made popular, especially if he found the criminal. Hence while he wanted help bring the MP’s murderer to justice, he was also doing it to better his professional name. This attitude reflects human nature. Every person has an evil side to their nature, Mr. Hyde reveals this side of our nature to society. By wanting to kill him, Poole, Mr. Utterson and the father of the girl who was trampled upon, were unconsciously rejecting and killing a part of their true selves; and are unconsciously guilty of hypocrisy.
This form of hypocrisy is still common today, where people know that they are doing is wrong but choose to deny the fact and continue with their actions. These men knew that there was an evil side to their nature but choose to ignore the fact. The theme of hypocrisy is seen in the maid that Dr. Jekyll had employed in the Soho house, which was to be Mr. Hyde’s home, as she was known to be silent. But when Mr. Utterson and Inspector Newman arrive after the murder of Sir Danvers to inspect the house, she seems delighted with the fact that her master is in trouble, “A flash of joy appeared upon the woman’s face.”.
Dr. Jekyll is one of the best examples of hypocrisy in the book, as he fails to accept that the evil side of his nature was a natural part of his personality; this denial led to his meltdown. He also had two faces or rather wore a public mask, which portrayed him as a very charitable and kind man. While in private he was committing murder and trampling on little children for no reason. We too are guilty of hypocrisy. We use people who are weaker than us to our benefit; sometimes our denial of certain facts causes us too to be guilty of hypocrisy, and at times can lead to our defacement.
Stevenson’s book looks at the duality of human nature, the good and evil sides which are within all of us. The author is analysing the consequences of emphasising too much of one side or another of our nature. The theme of duality in mans nature is predominant in the novel. The theme is a very powerful description of the 19th century contradiction of outward respectability and inward lust, it also played a major role in the author’s life. We see the theme being depicted in Dr. Jekyll’s attempts in separating the two “elements” of a persons nature. This theme is mainly seen in the characters of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dr. Jekyll’s public image was one of “a respected physician and chemist”, someone who was respected by everyone he came in contact with. He was born into a prosperous family and hence had a good education.
He would also be a man of high civility and with good taste. If Dr. Jekyll was to unleash his evil side, people would have been taken aback with his behaviour, as there was a certain degree of behaviour that had to be maintained among high ranking members of society, like himself. In order to avoid this marring, he created Mr. Hyde. When unleashed Mr. Hyde committed some very evil crimes. The author gives us details of only two of these incidents. The first, where he trampled over a little girl for no reason and walked away. Leaving her wounded and helpless on the street. The second, the murder of Sir Danvers Carew. The theme of duality in a persons character, is universal. People are always trying to hide their true selves out of fear that they may not get accepted into society, because peoples individuality isn’t respected.
People are expected to be just like someone else. The images of the street that Dr. Jekyll lived on also contribute to the theme of duality. The street is described to have “freshly painted shutters, well- polished brasses and general cleanliness and gaiety of note, instantly caught and pleased the eye of the passenger. Two doors from one corner, on the left hand going east, the line was broken by the entry of a court; and just at that point, a sinister block of building thrust forward its gable on the street.” The structure is said to have “no window, nothing but a door on the lower storey and a blind forehead of discoloured wall on the upper.”. The offending section of the street is the entrance that Mr. Hyde used, while Dr. Jekyll used the main square entrance. Today too streets have two natures. In the day it may be a street with thriving trade, but when darkness falls the trade becomes acts of crime.
The lack of a leading leady in the novel represents the male dominant Victorian society. This contrasts with today’s society, where the woman’s place and role is slowly rising from that of the home maker, to playing a role as important as that of the male. In the Victorian era the woman was only supposed to have a family. As a member of the upper class then she would indulge in her hobbies for most of the day. Or as a member of the lower class she would hold the position of maid servant in the house of a member of the upper class. This idea juxtaposes with the modern idea of the woman’s place in society. Today women have secured positions in all fields of life.
The modern reader will be very familiar with the idea that ‘suppression leads to violence’. We see this idea being portrayed in the novel as well. R. L. Stevenson also uses imagery to depict this idea and help the reader visualise the message he is trying to convey. We are told that all the windows in Dr. Jekyll’s house have iron bars on them. These are symbols of his self imprisonment. His interest in eccentric science, led to his close friend Dr. Lanyon to end their professional relationship to end, and caused their friendly bond to drift further.
The Victorian society’s constraints, that is the certain level of behaviour that a member of a prosperous family had to maintain at all times; and Dr. Jekyll’s feelings of imprisonment motivated his dangerous experiments to create Mr. Hyde, or an evil twin as it would be known in modern days. When Dr. Jekyll prevents himself from turning himself into Mr. Hyde, the result of the suppression was his murdering Sir Danvers Carew. His denial of the fact that a person’s evil side cannot be separated from their character, his experiments which showed that the two “elements” an be separated, and his unsuccessful attempts of preventing himself from taking the drug to transform into Mr. Hyde causes his eventual destruction.
The interest in anatomy and chemicals is also common in modern times. The man who owned Dr. Jekyll’s house before him was a surgeon. Hence the presence of the laboratory. Dr. Jekyll was a chemist by profession, and his job was related to the human body. He wanted to prove “that man is not truly one, but truly two.” He wanted to separate the two “elements”, and house them in different identities and relieving the world of the intolerable.
This idea is similar to that in Mary Shelly’s ‘Frankenstein’; that is the idea of man playing God. This is a very common idea today as well, genetics is a fast growing industry as man wants to take the place of God. To prove this, he went about mixing drugs and concocted a potion that would change his appearance. This would enable him to unleash his evil side, without tainting his image and still maintaining his middle-class respectability. Today’s interest in chemicals and the anatomy is to duplicate species and to aid procreation like the creation of clones; to cure diseases and also to destroy life, like in the creation of bombs and poisonous gases.
Addiction is another theme in the novel that has modern relevance. Dr. Jekyll was addicted to transforming into Mr. Hyde. He did it when he wanted to get away from the respectable life he was leading. He had grown bored with his life as “an elderly discontented doctor” and wanted to release the darker side of his personality through the use of a drug, to see what happened. Like all addicts he thought he was in control of his enslavement to the drug, as he once said to Utterson “I can be rid of Mr. Hyde at any time”. In reality if the compulsion isn’t stopped as soon as it is started it begins to control the addicts life, and from then on there’s no going back. With the stresses of living in today’s modern world an addict will be able to relate to Dr. Jekyll’s addiction to the drug that would withdraw him from his ‘high ranking member of society life’ and transform him into the evil, undignified Mr. Edward Hyde.
The book has contributed to modern psychology theories. Terms in modern psychology now consist of ‘The Jekyll and Hyde personality’.
In my opinion Stevenson was undoubtedly aware that these issues were ones which many ordinary people of that time were thinking about. Most of the ideas have carried on through the centuries, though some have changed; for example the attitude towards the woman’s place in society and the origin of mankind. Some social ideas will carry on through the centuries to come like, suppression leading to violence, the acts of hypocrisy that we are all guilty off, the increasing interest in chemicals and the anatomy and the undeniable fact that we all have an evil side to our nature and it accounts for only a small portion of our personality. Hence I hold a balanced view.