Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Themes
Keeping Up Appearances
Much of the dramatic action in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde consists of damage control. In other words, Utterson tirelessly works to prevent his good friend Dr. Jekyll from being dragged into the horrid affairs of Mr. Hyde, and Dr. Jekyll goes to the greatest of lengths to prevent his Hyde identity from being discovered, in order to avoid anyone knowing of his somewhat questionable scientific work and morally despicable behavior. The novel takes place in Victorian England and the main characters are all male members of the British upper class. Enfield, Utterson, Lanyon and Jekyll are all acutely aware of social expectations and the importance of appearance. Even in the first chapter, Enfield is wary of sharing his story of the mysterious door because he abhors gossip, as it destroys reputations. In kind, Utterson refrains from informing the police that Jekyll is a close friend of Hyde's following the murder of Sir Danvers Carew. Rather, to maintain his friend's reputation and protect his public image, Utterson goes to Jekyll directly to discuss the matter.
This issue also arises in the matter of physical appearances, particularly architecture. In the first chapter, we learn that Hyde's mysterious dwelling is run down, neglected, and shabby. In contrast, Jekyll's home is extremely well kept, majestic, rich, and beautiful. Ironically, we eventually learn that the mysterious door is in fact connected to Jekyll's home, albeit a back entrance rarely used. Thus, it becomes clear that although idyllic to the public, even Jekyll's home, parallel to his personality, has a neglected, shabby, and perhaps dangerous portion hidden from view.
The Duality of Human Nature
Clearly, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is an examination of the duality of human nature, as most clearly expressed in the revelation that Mr. Hyde is in fact Dr. Jekyll, only transformed into a personification of Jekyll's evil characteristics. Utterson's discovery of Jekyll's astounding work occurs in the final chapter of the novel, after Stevenson has laid the groundwork of evidence for the extreme duality inherent in human nature. We have already witnessed Hyde's powerfully vicious violence and have seen the contrasting kind, gentle, and honorable Dr. Jekyll. In approaching the novel's mystery, Utterson never imagines that Hyde and Jekyll are the same man, as he finds it impossible to reconcile their strikingly different behavior.
In pursuing his scientific experiments and validating his work, Jekyll claims, "man is not truly one, but truly two." Thus, in Jekyll's view, every soul contains elements of both good and evil, but one is always dominant. In Jekyll's case, his good side is dominant, but he knows there is evil inside of him. However, as a respectable member of society and an honorable Victorian gentleman, Jekyll cannot fulfill his evil desires. Thus, he works to develop a way to separate the two parts of his soul and free his evil characteristics. However, as Vladimir Nabokov explains in an introduction to the Signet Classic version of the book, "[Jekyll] is a composite being, a mixture of good and bad...[and] Jekyll is not really transformed into Hyde but projects a concentrate of pure evil that becomes Hyde." Unfortunately, rather than separating and equalizing these forces of good and evil, Jekyll's potion only allows his purely evil side to gain strength. Jekyll is in fact a combination of good and evil, but Hyde is only pure evil. Thus, there is never a way to strengthen or separate Jekyll's pure goodness. Without counterbalancing his evil identity, Jekyll allows Hyde to grow increasingly strong, and eventually take over entirely, perhaps entirely destroying all the pure goodness Jekyll ever had.
Other theorists have argued that perhaps Stevenson concludes that man is not in fact a purely dual being, but is at his heart a primitive being, tamed and civilized by the laws of society. Stevenson does portray Hyde in highly animalistic terms - short, hairy, and like a troglodyte with gnarled hands and a horrific face. In contrast, Jekyll is described in the most gentlemanly terms - tall, refined, polite and honorable, with long elegant fingers and a handsome appearance. Thus, perhaps Jekyll's experiment reduces his being to its most basic form, in which evil runs freely without considering the constraints of society and civilization.
Jekyll and Hyde are not the only examples of duality in the novel. The city of London is also portrayed in contrasting terms, as both a foggy, dreary, nightmarish place, and a well kept, bustling center of commerce. Indeed, just as men have both positive and negative qualities, so does society.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde contains powerfully violent scenes. In each instance, the culprit is Mr. Hyde, and the victim is an innocent. For example, in the first chapter we learn how Mr. Hyde literally trampled a young girl in the street at three in the morning, and later on we learn that Hyde, unprovoked, mercilessly beat Sir Danvers Carew to death. Even worse, we find at the conclusion of the novel that Hyde thoroughly enjoyed committing this violence, and afterwards felt a rush of excitement and satisfaction. Through this imagery of senseless violence against innocent victims, Stevenson expresses the true depravity and pure evil of Hyde.
Interestingly, Hyde's final victims, when he commits suicide just before Utterson and Poole break into his cabinet, are both himself and Jekyll. In this final act, neither victim is innocent. Clearly, Hyde is guilty of a great many crimes, and Jekyll is guilty by proxy as he created Hyde, let him run free, and inhabits the same body as the man. Perhaps in this conclusion, Stevenson is suggesting that to those who promote and commit senseless violence, punishment will come.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde contains very few references to women. In fact, those that are even mentioned are portrayed as weak and unassuming. Even in the descriptions of Hyde's morally depraved behavior, there is no mention of sexual encounters or illicit relationships. In rationalizing this omission, Nabokov reasons, "It has been suggested that Stevenson, 'working as he did under Victorian restrictions,' and not wishing to bring colours into the story alien to its monkish patterns, consciously refrained from placing a painted feminine mask upon the secret pleasure in which Jekyll indulged." Interestingly, none of the major characters are described to have any female relationships. Rather, Lanyon, Enfield, Utterson and Jekyll all appear to be bachelors who through each other's company seek intellectual stimulation and friendship. Some have reasoned that this lack of the female sex suggests, "Jekyll's secret adventures were homosexual practices so common in London behind the Victorian veil."
The first woman we hear about is the young girl running through a London street at three in the morning on her way to fetch a doctor. Hyde the Juggernaut tramples her without a second thought. The girl is immediately victimized and is portrayed as a helpless, passive creature who requires a great many people, Enfield included, to rescue her and avenge the crime.
Next, we meet the maid who witnesses Sir Danvers Carew's murder. She is described quite passively, as she sits gazing out at the moonlight with a care in the world. Upon noticing Sir Danvers Carew (whom she does not recognize from so far off), she watches the man and observes as he meets Hyde on the path. When Hyde begins to pummel the man, the maid loses all sensibility and faints away. Only hours later, at which point there is little hope of catching Hyde, the maid awakens and reports the crime. Quite similar to the little girl, this murder witness proves feeble and passive, and her emotional reaction to Hyde's violence causes a delay in the investigation.
The last woman we meet is one of Jekyll's servants. When Utterson and Poole make their final efforts to save Jekyll from Hyde, who they believe has invaded the house and at the least is holding Jekyll hostage, a female maid is one of the group of servants huddled together in one portion of the house. All are quite afraid, but it is a female servant who bursts into loud sobs, which endanger the entire mission, as Hyde might hear and either flee or prepare to meet his visitors, who were hoping to catch him off guard. Once again, this woman is portrayed as weak and helpless in the face of danger. In an introductory essay to the novel, Nabokov writes, "Excluding two or three vague servant maids, a conventional hag and a faceless little girl running for a doctor, the gentle sex has no part in the action."
Lack of Communication
Throughout the novel, the characters demonstrate an inability to fully express themselves, or choose to withhold highly important information. For example, in the very first chapter, Enfield claims he does not want to share the name of the man who trampled the young girl in order to avoid gossip. However, after finally naming Hyde, he and Utterson end the conversation abruptly, as they feel discussing the topic any further would be inappropriate for all parties involved. Similarly, Utterson withholds relevant information from the police following Sir Danvers Carew's murder by choosing to keep Hyde and Jekyll's relationship secret. These silences reflect the confines of the moral nature of the Victorian era. As earlier noted, the Victorian era placed a great deal of importance on outward appearances. In order to protect themselves and each other against the destruction of respectability, Enfield, Lanyon, Utterson and Jekyll worked to hide or keep secret any piece of information that might mar a reputation.
In another manifestation of silence in the novel, no one who meets Hyde can describe exactly what it is about his appearance or face that makes him seem evil, but all agree that upon meeting or seeing him, they felt a sense of horror. Finally, much of the important details regarding the nature of Jekyll and Hyde are passed on in written form rather than in speech. In a letter written just before his death, Lanyon instructs Utterson not to read the contents until the death or disappearance of Jekyll. Similarly, Jekyll writes his final confession in a letter to Utterson, rather than sharing his secrets in person. Interestingly, none of these letters provide details into the unseen aspects of Hyde's life. The reader never learns what other evil actions Hyde took, and is only left to wonder at the degree of his violence, brutality, and moral depravity. In Utterson's world, where all details of life and law are placed in official documents, language is regaled as a stronghold of rationality and logic. Therefore, perhaps the lack of language or communication between characters and related to Hyde demonstrates that the supernatural occurrences in the novel push the world beyond the logical, and therefore beyond speech.
The Rational vs. The Irrational
In composing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Stevenson walked a fine line between reality and the supernatural. Utterson, through whom the reader perceives the action, is a highly rational, logical man who considers himself to be an upright and honorable citizen of Victorian England. In contrast, the novel's conclusion is highly supernatural, and does not mesh with the grounded nature of the world in which the main characters live. In fact, by developing the very reasoned and rational characters, the effect of the final conclusion and the discovery of Jekyll's horrific work is even more powerful, in that the contrast is so great. Undoubtedly, Stevenson met a great challenge in balancing these two worlds while successfully allowing the supernatural fantastical portion of the novel to be believable. Amazingly, in the short three days during which he wrote the novel, he met this challenge.
In his introduction to the novel, Nabokov analyzes Stevenson's method in balancing the rational and the irrational, and thereby achieving a great artistic achievement. In his view, to make the fantastic details of Jekyll's work believable, Stevenson presents the otherwise unbelievable details of Jekyll's experiments through the highly rational minds of Utterson and Enfield. These two logical men "convey something to the reader of the horror of Hyde, but at the same time they, being neither artists nor scientists...cannot be allowed...to notice details," such as the specific features of Hyde's horrific face. Furthermore, by describing daily life in great detail, Stevenson contrasts the everyday life of London gentlemen with, "unspecified, vague, but ominous allusions to pleasures and dreadful vices somewhere behind the scenes. On the one side there is 'reality'; on the other, 'a nightmare world'."
For the highly rational and socially respected characters, such as Dr. Lanyon, the revelation of Jekyll's work is too much to bear. In fact, Dr. Lanyon dies from the shock he suffered when observing Hyde transform back in to Jekyll. In Lanyon's death, Stevenson seems to be suggesting that it is impossible to truly meld respectable life and morality with Jekyll's work. The two cannot co-exist. In the novel's final moments, rationality proves greater, as Jekyll and Hyde die, and Utterson, the personification of logic and reason, is left to pick up the pieces.
The City of LondonThe novel begins on a London street that proves to act as central to much of the novel's action. The descriptions of the city vary, from idyllic and majestic to dangerous, mysterious and dark. In Victorian London, the modern city began to powerfully establish itself. In his afterword to the novel, Dan Chaon notes that Stevenson relied on the modern city in order to provide a realistic location in which Hyde could live. Chaon explains, "[Hyde] needs the anonymity of the masses, ad he needs the newly gaslit streets, the flickering nighttime landscape of pubs and brothels and beggards, the urban underworld that would later transform into the world of film noir." Thus, the growing and developing city of London gave Hyde a cloak in which to hide his despicable behavior, and gave him precious anonymous freedom. In this world, Hyde was able to walk through society unnoticed and disregarded by the many strangers who roamed the streets. Without this opportunity for absolute anonymity, Jekyll would never have been able to carry out his experiment. Thus, the bustling, growing and many layered city of London supported Jekyll's work and gave him the freedom to pursue his dual lives.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Essays and Related Content
- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: Major Themes
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- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Robert Louis Stevenson: Biography
- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Summary
- About Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
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- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 1-3
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 4-6
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 7-8
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 9-10
- Gothic Literature
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