In the fourth and last of our “Dualism in literature” series, Annette Ong reviews Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Published in 1886, the novella remains one of the eminent works of the gothic genre.
“I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures… even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both.”
We’ve all heard of someone described as having “a Jekyll and Hyde” character, changing at a whim; having, what is commonly referred to as, a “split personality.” Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has made a profound impact, not only on literature but also psychology.
The story, set in Victorian England, tells the troubles of Dr. Henry Jekyll – a well-respected doctor with friends in high places. One night, he decides to experiment with some life-altering drugs. The serious side effect is his transformation, both physically and mentally, into Mr. Edward Hyde – a fiendish man with an unquenchable desire to satisfy his baser instincts.
The story is narrated through lawyer Mr. Utterson, Dr. Lanyon and Mr. Enfield, who are all old associates of Jekyll who become entwined in his sorry story. They witness the extreme changes in Jekyll and worry for his state of mind. Their suspicions centre on Hyde, and they believe he is the instigator of their friend’s troubles. They are unaware that Hyde and Jekyll are one and the same being.
As the story progresses, Jekyll becomes accustomed to transforming into Hyde, so much so that the temptation to morph into his alter-ego becomes overwhelming and he cannot resist. Once an upstanding citizen, Jekyll becomes a harried shadow of himself. He is paranoid, anxious, exhausted and fearful. Hyde, on the other hand, revels in his own despicable behavior, using violence to satiate his evil desires. He rails with impatience and anger at Jekyll’s “humanity” and reasoning, seeing it as weak and futile.
Dualism in human nature has never been so perfectly illustrated as in Jekyll and Hyde. The pressure on Victorian society to “act” in a certain way left many feeling caged and repressed. Jekyll personifies frustration, whereas Hyde personifies liberation. However, Hyde’s freedom comes at a cost. Jekyll’s turmoil is the pull between good and evil. He must crush Hyde if he is to remain a respectable member of society. Jekyll’s dilemma raises the question of which nature to nurture and the consequences of this. Similar in theme to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, it is also a reflection of the battle between science and Christian morality.
The belief that a person’s physical features express their inner character is highlighted in Hyde’s “deformed” image. He is described as “downright detestable” and “displeasing”, and is hated at first sight. Jekyll, on the other hand, is “a large, well-made, smooth-faced man of fifty… with every mark of capacity and kindness.” Supposedly, dual natures have dual appearances as well.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a classic for more reasons than one: it has superb writing, thought-provoking themes and complex characters. It is the perfect exploration of the duality of human nature and the challenges and conflicts it presents.