The novella “Jekyll and Hyde” is one of Stevenson’s best-known works. It made a big impression when it was published in 1886, and it has become a symbol of man’s duality.
This duality is a central theme in Stevenson’s work. As a teenager, Stevenson wrote a play about Deacon Brodie, a respectable Edinburgh cabinet-maker who led a secret life as a house-breaker.1 Stevenson was also fascinated by the case of Eugene Chantrelle, a French teacher in Edinburgh and an acquaintance of Stevenson; Chantrelle was convicted for murdering his wife, and suspected of murdering other people, too.
Was Stevenson interested in man’s duality because he himself led a double life? One critic describes Stevenson as “the only child of very pious parents. [He] suffered from their Puritan restrictiveness.” Apparently he resorted to drink and prostitutes, “leaving home for a bohemian love-life in the Edinburgh slums.”
Another reason why Stevenson was interested in man’s duality is that he felt his works were created by a muse, an inner voice, something outside his conscious self. As one critic wrote, Stevenson believed that “his creative projects are produced not by him, but by a shadowy character he calls ‘the other fellow,’ for whom Stevenson himself acts only as an amanuensis.”
Stevenson described this “other fellow” in a letter to Frederic Myers. Myers did research on the occult, and was a leading member of The Society for Psychical Research, of which Stevenson was a member. Stevenson was interested in the occult, and in dreams; he wrote an essay called “A Chapter on Dreams.” His works often allude to occult phenomena. For example, in “Jekyll and Hyde,” Utterson has a hunch that he’s finally going to meet Mr. Hyde:
|In the course of his nightly patrols, he had long grown accustomed to the quaint effect with which the footfalls of a single person, while he is still a great way off, suddenly spring out distinct from the vast hum and clatter of the city. Yet his attention had never before been so sharply and decisively arrested; and it was with a strong, superstitious prevision of success that he withdrew into the entry of the court.|
In his “Chapter on Dreams,” Stevenson notes that a dream sometimes tells an involved story, and the dreamer is surprised by the plot twists, though his own unconscious, his “other fellow,” created the whole story.2 So Stevenson understood that dreams are created by this “other fellow,” just as fictional works are, just as Hyde’s crimes are. Man’s duality is evident, Stevenson believed, in dreams, fictional works, and crimes.
Stevenson noted that people sometimes take action while in a dream, while sleeping. People who are sleeping sometimes act in a way that their waking self wouldn’t, as Hyde acts in a way that Jekyll wouldn’t. In his letter to Myers, Stevenson describes a night of illness and pain, a night in which he was struggling with various dreams and hallucinations. His conscious self knew that he shouldn’t tell his wife about the dream, but finally his other self “called my wife to my bedside, seized her savagely by the wrist, and, looking on her with a face of fury, cried, ‘Why do you not put the two ends together and put me out of pain?’”
This other self, this unconscious self, might be compared to Mr. Hyde. This incident took place in 1884, two years before Stevenson wrote “Jekyll and Hyde.” This experience of duality, of split personality, may have strengthened Stevenson’s interest in duality, and may have inspired him to create “Jekyll and Hyde.” The theme of duality looms large in both Stevenson’s work and his life; I mentioned it fifteen years ago when discussing Treasure Island.
“Jekyll and Hyde” was born in dreams and intuitions. Before Stevenson began writing it, he was casting about for a subject, and had a dream about a man transforming himself into a monster, into a Hyde character. While still asleep, Stevenson screamed in terror. This roused his wife, who roused Stevenson himself. Stevenson was annoyed with his wife, annoyed that she had pulled him out of what he called “a fine bogey tale.”
Though the “bogey tale” was interrupted, it provided the seed for a novella, and Stevenson set to work. Stevenson’s stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, later said,
|I remember the first reading as though it were yesterday. Louis [i.e., Robert Louis Stevenson] came downstairs in a fever; read nearly half the book aloud; and then, while we were still gasping, he was away again, and busy writing. I doubt if the first draft took so long as three days.3|
“Jekyll and Hyde” made a strong impression on the public, as well as on Stevenson and his family. It sold rapidly, and was turned into a play starring Richard Mansfield. But soon the public was engrossed by the serial killings of “Jack the Ripper,” and Mansfield was mentioned as a suspect! So Mansfield closed down the successful production.
Is it possible that Jack the Ripper himself read the story, and was inspired by it? Did Stevenson consider this possibility? Did life imitate art? In a recent issue, I noted that Stevenson was concerned about the effect of his work on the reader.
Surely one reason why the story made such an impression was its graphic violence — violence that had no cause, violence motivated by pure evil, satanic evil. In the following passage, a maid is looking out the window and sees
|an aged beautiful gentleman with white hair, drawing near along the lane; and advancing to meet him, another and very small gentleman, to whom at first she paid less attention. When they had come within speech (which was just under the maid’s eyes) the older man bowed and accosted the other with a very pretty manner of politeness. It did not seem as if the subject of his address were of great importance; indeed, from his pointing, it sometimes appeared as if he were only inquiring his way; but the moon shone on his face as he spoke, and the girl was pleased to watch it, it seemed to breathe such an innocent and old-world kindness of disposition, yet with something high too, as of a well-founded self-content.
Presently her eye wandered to the other, and she was surprised to recognize in him a certain Mr. Hyde, who had once visited her master and for whom she had conceived a dislike. He had in his hand a heavy cane, with which he was trifling; but he answered never a word, and seemed to listen with an ill-contained impatience. And then all of a sudden he broke out in a great flame of anger, stamping with his foot, brandishing the cane, and carrying on (as the maid described it) like a madman. The old gentleman took a step back, with the air of one very much surprised and a trifle hurt; and at that Mr. Hyde broke out of all bounds and clubbed him to the earth. And next moment, with ape-like fury, he was trampling his victim under foot and hailing down a storm of blows, under which the bones were audibly shattered and the body jumped upon the roadway. At the horror of these sights and sounds, the maid fainted.
Notice the phrase “ape-like fury.” Hyde is also described as a “monkey,” “troglodytic,” “hardly human.” It seems that Stevenson was influenced by Darwin’s theory. As a consequence of Darwin’s work, man was viewed, not as a relative of God, but as a relative of animals. Was a savage beast lurking beneath the veneer of civilization? (In recent weeks, we’ve seen this savage beast in Ukraine.)
One critic wrote, “In ‘Jekyll and Hyde,’ as in ‘Thrawn Janet’ and ‘The Merry Men,’ Stevenson probes the Calvinist tradition of personified evil largely for Gothic effect.”4 Stevenson was concerned about the effect of “personified evil” on the reader, yet he kept coming back to the subject, perhaps because of his Calvinist upbringing, perhaps because of his experience of duality, perhaps because he knew that “personified evil” struck a chord with the public.
When people see Hyde’s face, they feel “disgust, loathing and fear.” But they can never explain why. Hyde “gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation.” Stevenson doesn’t describe Hyde in detail, Hyde is obscure; the reader learns nothing about his hair or his eyes or his nose. One might compare Stevenson’s depiction of Hyde to Milton’s description of Death. Milton wrote,
The other shape,
If shape it might be called that shape had none
Distinguishable in member, joint, or limb,
Or substance might be called that shadow seemed,
For each seemed either; black it stood as Night,
Fierce as ten Furies, terrible as Hell,
And shook a dreadful Dart; what seemed his head
The likeness of a Kingly Crown had on.
In his essay on the sublime, Edmund Burke praised the “judicious obscurity” of Milton’s description of Death, and Burke considered this obscurity characteristic of the sublime. Burke said that the sublime is that which arouses terror, horror, and astonishment — just what is aroused in Enfield by his first sight of Hyde. Enfield says,
|I saw two figures: one a little man who was stumping along eastward at a good walk, and the other a girl of maybe eight or ten who was running as hard as she was able down a cross street. Well, sir, the two ran into one another naturally enough at the corner; and then came the horrible part of the thing; for the man trampled calmly over the child’s body and left her screaming on the ground. It sounds nothing to hear, but it was hellish to see. It wasn’t like a man; it was like some damned Juggernaut.|
Hyde has a mysterious power, a satanic power, a power that makes him seem inhuman. As beauty causes pleasure, according to Burke, so sublimity causes pain; the sight of Hyde causes pain to other characters.
But the sublime is often associated with reverence, while Hyde awakens loathing rather than reverence. Should we describe Hyde’s effect as horror rather than sublimity? Or should we extend the concept of sublimity to include the loathsome Hyde?
The main characters in “Jekyll and Hyde” represent joyless life, lifeless life, death-in-life. “The important men of the book,” one critic wrote, “[are] all unmarried, barren of ideas, emotionally stifled, joyless.”5 The lawyer Utterson, for example, “enjoyed the theatre, [but] had not crossed the doors of one for twenty years.” Jekyll metamorphoses into Hyde in order to experience joy, spontaneity, vitality.
These men aren’t bums or bohemians, they’re lawyers and doctors, they’re successful, comfortable, respectable. “In this society of respectables Dr. Jekyll stands out as ‘the very pink of the proprieties.’”
Jekyll craves respectability, he speaks of, “my imperious desire to carry my head high, and wear a more than commonly grave countenance before the public.” But he also has “a certain impatient gaiety of disposition.” Torn between respectability and gaiety, unable to reconcile these tendencies, Jekyll became “committed to a profound duplicity of life.”
He begins making scientific experiments, hoping to create an alter ego who can express his repressed gaiety. He dabbles in his laboratory, like Faust and Frankenstein, pursuing “the mystic and the transcendental.” Finally he concocts a potion that will turn him into Mr. Hyde, then back to Dr. Jekyll.
Stevenson’s London is a wasteland, both in its people and its landscape. Here is how Stevenson describes Utterson’s visit to Hyde’s house in Soho:
|It was by this time about nine in the morning, and the first fog of the season. A great chocolate-colored pall lowered over heaven, but the wind was continually charging and routing these embattled vapors; so that as the cab crawled from street to street, Mr. Utterson beheld a marvelous number of degrees and hues of twilight; for here it would be dark like the back-end of evening; and there would be a glow of a rich, lurid brown, like the light of some strange conflagration; and here, for a moment, the fog would be quite broken up, and a haggard shaft of daylight would glance in between the swirling wreaths. The dismal quarter of Soho seen under these changing glimpses, with its muddy ways, and slatternly passengers, and its lamps, which had never been extinguished or had been kindled afresh to combat this mournful re-invasion of darkness, seemed, in the lawyer’s eyes, like a district of some city in a nightmare.|
Perhaps the theme of “Jekyll and Hyde” is the same as that of many literary works: the quest for wholeness, balance, happiness, the good life. But “Jekyll and Hyde” doesn’t present this theme through characters who have achieved wholeness, but rather through characters who have failed to achieve it. Theologians can portray God positively by describing what He is, or negatively by describing what He isn’t; the negative approach was called the via negativa. Likewise, imaginative writers can depict wholeness through positive examples or through negative examples. In “Jekyll and Hyde,” Stevenson pursues the via negativa, he portrays characters who are lifeless, or who achieve vitality only through a dramatic split of their personality.6
In his essay “Lay Morals,” Stevenson discusses wholeness/vitality:
|[The soul] demands that we shall not live alternately with our opposing tendencies in continual see-saw of passion and disgust, but seek some path on which the tendencies shall no longer oppose, but serve each other to a common end. It demands that we shall not pursue broken ends, but great and comprehensive purposes, in which soul and body may unite like notes in a harmonious chord. That were indeed a way of peace and pleasure, that were indeed a heaven upon earth. It does not demand, however... that I should starve my appetites for no purpose under heaven but as a purpose in itself; or, in a weak despair, pluck out the eye that I have not yet learned to guide and enjoy with wisdom. The soul demands unity of purpose, not the dismemberment of man; it seeks to roll up all his strength and sweetness, all his passion and wisdom, into one.7|
E. M. Forster described the quest for wholeness in similar language:
|Only connect! ....Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.|
Jekyll fails to connect, he isolates his beast from his conscious self, from his public persona.
The main characters of “Jekyll and Hyde” are professional men, men from the upper middle class. Stevenson himself was born into this class, his family was well-to-do. But Stevenson had no interest in building a career that would ensure he remained in this class. On the contrary, he liked to drop into a lower class; when he traveled to California as a young man, he traveled “on the cheap,” and consorted with the working class. He notes that Christianity doesn’t preach respectability:
|There is a kind of idea abroad that a man must live up to his station, that his house, his table, and his toilette, shall be in a ratio of equivalence, and equally imposing to the world. If this is in the Bible, the passage has eluded my inquiries. If it is not in the Bible, it is nowhere but in the heart of the fool....
A man who has not experienced some ups and downs, and been forced to live more cheaply than in his father’s house, has still his education to begin. Let the experiment be made, and he will find to his surprise that he has been eating beyond his appetite up to that hour; that the cheap lodging, the cheap tobacco, the rough country clothes, the plain table, have not only no power to damp his spirits, but perhaps give him as keen pleasure in the using as the dainties that he took, betwixt sleep and waking, in his former callous and somnambulous submission to wealth.
Stevenson notes that one who looks like a Bohemian, may be merely pursuing a different kind of respectability, while one who looks like a burgher may be a genuine Bohemian, may be following his own drummer:
|The Bohemian of the novel, who drinks more than is good for him and prefers anything to work, and wears strange clothes, is for the most part a respectable Bohemian, respectable in disrespectability, living for the outside.... But the man I mean lives wholly to himself, does what he wishes, and not what is thought proper, buys what he wants for himself, and not what is thought proper, works at what he believes he can do well and not what will bring him in money or favor. You may be the most respectable of men, and yet a true Bohemian.|
Stevenson’s “true Bohemian” knows what he wants, he knows himself. The chief ingredient of personal growth, Stevenson seems to say, is self-consciousness:
There is plainly one thing more unrighteous than all others.... And this is to lose consciousness of oneself. In the best of times, it is but by flashes, when our whole nature is clear, strong and conscious, and events conspire to leave us free, that we enjoy communion with our soul....
It is to keep a man awake, to keep him alive to his own soul and its fixed design of righteousness, that the better part of moral and religious education is directed; not only that of words and doctors, but the sharp ferule of calamity under which we are all God’s scholars till we die.
In “Jekyll and Hyde,” Stevenson uses a Latin phrase that I hadn’t heard before, pede claudo. When I googled this phrase, I found that it was short for pede poena claudo, meaning “punishment moves with halting gait” (poena = punishment, pede = foot, claudo = closed/crippled/limping). The criminal escapes initially, but punishment slowly catches up with him, as the tortoise overtakes the hare. The phrase pede poena claudo comes from an ode by Horace:
neglectus incesto addidit integrum,
raro antecedentem scelestum
deseruit pede Poena claudo.
(If Jupiter is disrespected, he often punishes the innocent with the guilty. Rarely does punishment, moving with halting step, fail to catch up with earlier crime.)
Diespiter is another name for Jupiter. Diespiter is from dies meaning day or sky. Diespiter means DiesPater, SkyFather. Deus means god, sky, shining. Likewise, the Chinese tian means sky or god. (The Chinese emperor was called tian-zi, son of heaven. A successful emperor had the tian-ming, the mandate of heaven.) “Jupiter” is from djous-pater. “Zeus” is from dzeus or zdeus. So both “Jupiter” and “Zeus” are related to deus (god), and both deus and dies are related to sky/shining.
Here are some critical essays on “Jekyll and Hyde”:
|1.||“Stevenson had been long familiar with the story of Deacon Brodie, an Edinburgh cabinet maker by day and burglar by night, and as early as 1865 [at age 15] he was at work on a drama based on the man’s life. (He later completed the work with W. E. Henley, titling it, Deacon Brodie, or The Double Life.)”(Miyoshi, p. 474) back|
|2.||Stevenson describes a dream in which he kills his father, then becomes very close with his widowed mother — not unlike Oedipus. back|
|3.||Stevenson’s wife read the manuscript and wrote comments in the margin. “She observed that in effect the story was really an allegory, but Robert was writing it as a story. After a while, Robert called her back into the bedroom and pointed to a pile of ashes: he had burnt the manuscript in fear that he would try to salvage it, and thus forced himself to start again from nothing, writing an allegorical story as she had suggested.”(Wikipedia) back|
|4.||Robert Louis Stevenson and the Fiction of Adventure, by Robert Kiely, p. 209 back|
|5.||“Dr. Jekyll and the Emergence of Mr. Hyde,” by Masao Miyoshi, College English, Mar., 1966, Vol. 27, No. 6 (Mar., 1966), pp. 470-474 and 479-480, jstor.org/stable/374021
Saposnik writes, “The four prominent men in the story are gentlemen and, as such, are variations of standard gentlemanly behavior. Three are professional men — two doctors, one lawyer — and the only non-professional, Richard Enfield, is so locked into his role that his description as ‘the well-known man about town’ might as well be a professional designation.” When a Jungian like myself hears of four characters, he wonders if this might be a Jungian quaternity.
Miyoshi points out that Hyde isn’t violent at first. Compared to Jekyll, Hyde is “younger, lighter, happier in body.” He has a “heady recklessness” and a “current of disordered sensual images running like a mill-race in my fancy.” One might say that, at first, Hyde is just “Jekyll on vacation,” just “Jekyll having a good time,” but then Hyde gets out of control.
Stevenson said that Jekyll’s chief vice is neither repressed violence nor repressed sexuality, but rather hypocrisy; Jekyll makes too brave a show of virtue and respectability.(Saposnik, p. 727) Saposnik says that Hyde represents “vitality,” “life force” — just what is lacking in Jekyll and the other leading characters.
Miyoshi says that “Jekyll and Hyde” is a “romance,” not an “orthodox realistic novel.” Miyoshi says that Stevenson compared romance and realism in several essays, such as “A Gossip on Romance.” Miyoshi says that romance and realism were “clearly distinguishable throughout the greater part of the nineteenth century, [but] the two merge in the last decade to form the new symbolic novel.”
Miyoshi says that, at the end of the eighteenth century, Gothic romances like The Castle of Otranto and Caleb Williams explored “the theme of double personality.” This theme also looms large in Romantic poets, who dealt with “the schism between the ineffable imagination and the demands of reason.” In the Victorian era, the schism between imagination and reason became “a problem of personal faith vs. social responsibility.... The Victorian writer wanted above all to ‘stay in touch’.... The world was waiting to be improved upon.” One thinks of Mill’s preoccupation with social reform.
When we say that Stevenson wrote romances, this doesn’t mean that his work was concerned with romantic relationships, erotic passions. To avoid this misinterpretation, one might use the word “fantasy” rather than the word “romance.” In fact, Stevenson’s work is rarely erotic. “Critics have often complained that the London of [‘Jekyll and Hyde’] is singularly devoid of women. [One critic] likens the atmosphere to ‘a community of monks.’”(Saposnik) back
|6.||Miyoshi says that “Jekyll and Hyde” depicts “the late Victorian wasteland,” which is “unfit to sustain a human being simultaneously in an honorable public life and a joyful private one.”
The critic F. R. Leavis said that D. H. Lawrence was concerned with the difference between vitality and death-in-life. Leavis wrote, “[Lawrence] has an unfailingly sure sense of the difference between that which makes for life and that which makes against it; of the difference between health and that which tends away from health.”
According to Leavis, Lawrence depicts love as a quest for wholeness (you’ll recall that the leading characters of “Jekyll and Hyde” are bachelors, men without a love life):
When we speak of balance/wholeness, perhaps we’re speaking of an ideal that can never be completely attained. Saposnik says that Jekyll’s experiments lead to “the inescapable conclusion that man must dwell in uncomfortable but necessary harmony with his multiple selves.” Saposnik compares wholeness to the elusive El Dorado.
Saposnik points out that Jekyll’s house symbolizes his split personality; Saposnik speaks of, “Jekyll’s house, with its sinister rear entrance through which Hyde passes and its handsome front ‘which wore a great air of wealth and comfort.’” back
|7.||This ideal of wholeness may become clearer if we apply it to one facet of life, namely, sexuality. Stevenson writes, “Man is tormented by a very imperious physical desire; it spoils his rest, it is not to be denied.... In the satisfaction of this desire, as it first appears, the soul sparingly takes part; nay, it oft unsparingly regrets and disapproves the satisfaction. But let the man learn to love a woman as far as he is capable of love; and for this random affection of the body there is substituted a steady determination, a consent of all his powers and faculties, which supersedes, adopts, and commands the other. The desire survives, strengthened, perhaps, but taught obedience and changed in scope and character. Life is no longer a tale of betrayals and regrets; for the man now lives as a whole; his consciousness now moves on uninterrupted like a river; through all the extremes and ups and downs of passion, he remains approvingly conscious of himself.” I’m indebted to Saposnik for drawing my attention to Stevenson’s “Lay Morals.” back|