Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at Bournemouth in 1885, while convalescing from an illness. The original idea occurred to him in a nightmare from which his wife awakened him. In fact, Stevenson was disappointed that she had interrupted a "fine bogey-tale," but eventually developed the idea into a full-length narrative. Originally, Stevenson's idea was to compose a straightforward horror story, with no allegorical undertones. However, after reading the original version to his wife, she suggested more could be made of the tale. After initially resisting, Stevenson burned the original manuscript and rewrote the entire novel in only three days.
Immediately upon its publication in January of 1887, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was recognized as a grand work. An anonymous review in "The Times" praised the book highly, observing that, "Nothing Mr. Stevenson has written as yet has so strongly impressed us with the versatility of his very original genius." The review concluded with the plea that the story, "be read as a finished study in the art of fantastic literature." Critics claim that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was the first work in which Stevenson sustained a full-length narrative that was not only exciting, but also well-composed story with a powerful and timely parable.
Stevenson lived and wrote during the Victorian era, when Queen Victoria ruled England. The Victorian era brought a great deal of technological progress and the advancement of European power throughout the world. However, during the height of Stevenson's writing at the end of the nineteenth century, artists, writers and intellectuals were beginning to move away from the celebration of "progress" that had so defined the times, and were questioning the relevance and permanence of the global domination of Western culture. As a part of this increasingly pessimistic group of writers, Stevenson based this book on his own experiences. He focuses on a milieu he knew well: the upper middle class highly social world of powerful men in which issues such as appearance and dress are extremely important. In examining this superficial existence, Stevenson targets the hypocrisy of social strata and the danger of allowing the innate evilness of human nature to run free in his narrative of a respectable doctor who transforms himself into a savage murderer.
The conclusion of the book reveals the now universally known revelation that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde inhabit the same body. Dr. Jekyll is the picture of social class and professional excellence, while Mr. Hyde is the embodiment of Jekyll's otherwise hidden evil nature. By distinctly separating these two ironically inextricably combined polar opposites, Stevenson examines man's relationship with good and evil, and comments on the constant war and balance between the two. In the broadly cultural context of the Victorian era, Hyde might be comparable to Western culture's fascination with perceived "savage" countries and cultures, specifically in Africa and the West Indies, while Jekyll is the embodiment of English manners, pride, and high culture. In examining, visiting and conquering remote countries, England and Europe believed they were civilizing savage peoples, most often working to convert the inhabitants to Christianity. Although fascinated by these strange new cultures, Europeans dismissed their ways of life as base. Thus, Dr. Jekyll represents the European approach to colonization in his examination of base, savage ideals. However, he proves unable to control his evil self or hide (Hyde) his fascination with it and thus dies in the process of trying to regain his original refined identity.
Many critics have mentioned the undercurrent of homosexuality in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The men in the novel have very close personal relationships, women play no role in the story or in the men's lives, and at times, it seems that outsiders believe Dr. Jekyll and the mysterious Mr. Hyde's relationship is sexually deviant in nature. However, this notion is never directly expressed. Interestingly, in every stage or film version of the story from 1920 to the present, both Jekyll and Hyde's involvement with women has been an essential part of his/their image. Stevenson's 1886 narrative contains no focus on women or romantic relationships, and is instead an "intellectual" horror story that examines the fundamental nature of man.
Although Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is widely recognized as a monumental piece of fiction, Stevenson's concept of duality within human identity was not completely originally. In fact, he had encountered precursors to his tale long before he wrote the novel. Most frequently as influential to the development of Stevenson's work are E.T.A. Hoffman's The Devil's Elixirs (1816), Thomas Jefferson Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), Edgar Allan Poe's William Wilson (1839), and most significantly, Theophile Gautier's Le Chevalier Double (1840). Gautier's story centers on the protagonist, Oluf, who has a double nature and leads a tormented life, much like Jekyll and Hyde.