Written by Robert Louis Stevenson in 1886, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde has gone down in literary history as a document of man’s search for his other and darker self. “Jekyll and Hyde” has since often been referred to when describing a mental condition of schizophrenic duality.
Is there a dark and disturbing side of a man that will come to life when called for? Is there an evil alter ego inside a good person? Dr Jekyll wanted to find out; with the best intentions the doctor ventured on a journey to map the contradictive sides of the human soul, and came up with a sinister and disturbing answer – there are certain sides of human nature that are best left alone…
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is Stevenson’s most famous book. He tried his hand at different genres developing his talent for storytelling; his first books were adventure stories with children as protagonists, probably best known is Treasure Island (1883). Robert Louis Stevenson belongs to the late Victorian novelists who were influenced by the social and political development, both in England and on the continent towards the turn of the century. Victorian England was a many-sided society populated by people from all walks of life, from the criminal classes in the slums of the big industrial cities to the increasingly wealthy middle class, and the aristocracy, who constituted the major part of the ruling class. A possible inspiration for Stevenson was the fact that many highly respected people were leading a double life with a virtuous and respectable life in the daytime, but were involved in criminal activity at night. Another likely motive could be the abuse of different drugs and substances which was increasingly common also among people from the middle classes; cocaine was the new and trendy dope, which Stevenson himself was allegedly addicted to. However, there is little doubt that “The Strange Case…” is primarily an attempt to bring to light the self-destructive quest of finding and evoking the dark forces of human nature.
Plot and Composition
“The Strange Case…” is a novella, which means a short novel; it has the characteristics of a novel, but the volume of a long short story. The plot is composed of three different versions of the same story, which is a somewhat original structure that may seem like a prescient approach of the upcoming modernist style. However, the structure is carefully considered by the author; the three parts complement each other insofar as they provide the reader with information from different angles, and the effect is a better understanding of the story as an entity.
Part one has the elements of a traditional mystery tale; an elusive criminal is lurking around in the dark back streets of London. Witnesses describe him as small and ugly and wearing clothes apparently too big for his size. He has a way of disappearing, and after he commits a murder, he is wanted, but never apprehended by the police. At the end of part one the murderer, now recognised as a certain Mr Hyde, is found dying on the floor of Dr Jekyll’s laboratory, whereas the doctor has disappeared.
Part two is the version given by Dr Jekyll’s friend and colleague, Dr Lanyon, who receives a letter from Dr Jekyll instructing him to collect some chemical substances from his laboratory. After having done so Lanyon is visited by the repulsive Mr Hyde, who mixes a potion from the ingredients and drinks it down, and in front of Dr Lanyon he is transformed into Dr Jekyll. Lanyon is of course horrified by what he witnesses:
“I saw what I saw, I heard what I heard, and my soul sickened at it; and yet now when that sight has faded from my eyes, I ask myself if I believe it, and I cannot answer. My life is shaken to its roots; sleep has left me; the deadliest terror sits by me at all hours of the day and night; I feel that my days are numbered, and that I must die.”
Part three is the story told by Dr Jekyll himself, from which the following extracts are taken.
Henry Jekyll’s Full Statement of the Case
Dr Jekyll reflects on his intentions and motives for going ahead with his project:
“With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to the truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: That man is not truly one, but truly two. (…) It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man. (…) If each (of these elements), I told myself, could but be housed in different identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable.”
But Dr Jekyll also has his doubts before he decides to test out his theories:
“I hesitated long before I put this theory to the test of practice. I knew well that I risked death; for any drug that so potently controlled and shook the very fortress of identity, might by the least scruple of an overdose or at the least inopportunity in the moment of exhibition utterly blot out that immaterial tabernacle which I looked to it to change. But the temptation of a discovery so singular and profound at last overcame the suggestions of alarm. I had long since prepared my tincture; I purchased at once, from a firm of wholesale chemists, a large quantity of a particular salt which I knew, from my experiments, to be the last ingredient to be required; and late one accursed night, I compounded the elements, watched them boil and smoke together in the glass, and when the ebullition had subsided, with a strong glow of courage drank off the potion.”
The effects were agonising and horrifying; but gradually he feels like “coming out of sickness” and describes the sensation as “incredibly sweet”:
“I knew myself, at the first breath of this new life, to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked, sold a slave to my original evil; and the thought, in that moment, braced and delighted me like wine. I stretched out my hands, exulting in the freshness of these sensations; and in the act I was suddenly aware that I had lost in stature. (…) I saw for the first time the appearance of Mr Hyde. (…) I have observed that when I bore the semblance of Mr Hyde, none could come near me first without the misgivings of the flesh. This, as I take it, was because all human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil: And Edward Hyde, alone in the ranks of mankind was pure evil.”
Then Edward Hyde is out in the dark and foggy back streets of London giving way to his purely evil self. Dr Jekyll is fascinated by the success of his experiment, since he can undo his transformation just like that:
“Think of it – I did not even exist! Let me but escape into my laboratory-door, give me but a second or two to mix and swallow the draught that I had always standing ready; and whatever he had done, Edward Hyde would pass away like the stain of breath upon a mirror; and there in his stead, quietly at home, trimming the midnight lamp in his study, a man who could afford to laugh at suspicion, would be Henry Jekyll.”
But Dr Jekyll also has his doubts and reproaches Mr Hyde for his malicious activity, so he needs to talk himself into self-approval:
“It was Hyde, after all, and Hyde alone that was guilty. Jekyll was no worse, he woke again to his good qualities seemingly unimpaired; he would even make haste, where it was possible to undo the evil done by Hyde. And thus his conscience slumbered.”
But now his experiment takes an unexpected turn, as he one morning wakes up and his eyes fall upon his hand:
“I smiled to myself (…) when in one of my wakeful moments my eye fell upon my hand. Now the hand of Henry Jekyll was professional in shape and size: it was large, firm, white, and comely. But the hand which I now saw, clearly enough in the yellow light of a mid-London morning, lying half shut on the bed-clothes, was lean, corded, knuckly, of a dusky pallor, and thickly shaded with a swart growth of hair. It was the hand of Edward Hyde. (…) Yes, I had gone to bed Henry Jekyll, I had awaked Edward Hyde. How was this to be explained? I asked myself; and then with another bound of terror – how was it to be remedied?”
The tables are turned. Dr Jekyll has lost control of his experiment; his evil alter ego, Mr Hyde, is taking over, and now he must take the drugs to restore his original personality. This scares him as he understands how his two egos are struggling for control, and for a couple of months he manages to refrain from further experiments. However, the abstinence becomes too strong and “in an hour of moral weakness” he takes another dose of the transforming potion:
“My devil had been long caged, he came out roaring. I was conscious, even when I took the draught, of a more unbridled, a more furious propensity to ill. (…) Instantly the spirit of hell awoke in me and raged. With a transport of glee I mauled the unresisting body, tasting delight from every blow; and it was not till weariness had begun to succeed, that I was suddenly, in the top fit of my delirium, struck through the heart by a cold thrill of terror.”
On one of his nocturne escapades Edward Hyde kills a prominent member of society, and after being witnessed and identified he is now on the run. But Dr Jekyll is now unable to control his transformations, and one day as he is sitting on a bench in Regent’s Park, Mr Hyde is back:
“I began to be aware of a change in the temper of my thoughts, a greater boldness, a contempt of danger, a solution of the bonds of obligation. I looked down; my clothes hung formlessly on my shrunken limbs; the hand that lay on my knee was corded and hairy. I was once more Edward Hyde.”
He now desperately needs the drugs to restore his Dr Jekyll countenance, but he cannot go to his apartment and get them because he is wanted by the police, so he has to call on his colleague Dr Lanyon for help. Lanyon is asked to go to Jekyll’s laboratory to get the drugs for him. Lanyon is then visited by the hideous Mr Hyde who in Lanyon’s presence mixes the potion, drinks it down and turns into Dr Jekyll. Lanyon is of course shocked (see Lanyon’s reaction in part two above), but Dr Jekyll has a more serious concern:
“When I came to myself at Lanyon’s, the horror of my old friend perhaps affected me somewhat: I do not know, it was at least but a drop in the sea to the abhorrence with which I looked back upon these hours. A change had come over me. It was no longer the fear of the gallows, it was the horror of being Hyde that racked me.”
Dr Jekyll returns to his house, but soon the “raging and freezing passions of Hyde” take hold of him again, and he pours down a double dose of the draught to regain himself. But this time in vain – the potion is without effect, and life is over for Dr Jekyll:
“Will Hyde die upon the scaffold? Or will he find the courage to release himself at the last moment? God knows; I am careless; this is my true hour of death, and what is to follow concerns another than myself. Here then, as I lay down the pen and proceed to seal up my confession, I bring the unhappy life of Dr Jekyll to an end.”
Tasks and Activities
- The three parts have different points of view. The first part is told in a 3rd person voice, the second part has a 1st person perspective, while the third part has a bit of both. Explain the use of the different narrative angles.
- Comment on the title. How should we interpret the choice of words, “The Strange Case…” instead of “The Story of…”?
- Comment on the name “Hyde”. Why do you think Stevenson has chosen to call him this?
- Read the first passage of Dr Jekyll’s statement again. What are his praiseworthy intentions for the experiment?
- In what way is the setting important?
- What is the theme of the story?
Topics for Discussion and Research
- Is it possible to take this story literally? (Can the intake of certain substances change one’s personality?)
- In general, what does the story tell us about life in late-Victorian London?
- Why do you think Mr Hyde commits suicide in the end?
- Do you think this story works as a warning of some sort; if so, a warning of what?
- Do some research to find famous examples of respectable Victorians who were leading a double life. (Dr Neill Cream – “The Lambeth Poisoner” is one of them.)
- The Strange Case… has a massive dramatic potential for film. What do you think is the challenge for a film maker who wants to produce this story as a film? (There is a small YouTube clip from a 1932 film version that shows an example of this.)
- Like so many works of literature Jekyll and Hyde has been turned into a musical. What happens in such a transformation? Does it affect our understanding of the story? (Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist is another example.) Check YouTube for clips from the musical Jekyll and Hyde.
- The theme of a person with an alter ego is quite common in literature as well as on film. Can you come up with examples from modern popular culture where the protagonist has two identities?
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