The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde
“ Evil is always possible. And goodness is eternally difficult” (Interview With The Vampire (1976) 1994:16). This is a dominant theme throughout many gothic novels of the fin de siecle, the struggle of finding goodness through evil or where only evil prevails; a struggle for morality. Like many texts of the late nineteenth century Stevenson’s novella is a moral; it signifies the dangers of humanity playing the role of God.
There is a fine line between good and evil, which in my opinion is constant throughout ‘The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. From the very beginning of the text we as readers are presented with sinister undertones, for example when we are first introduced to the character Hyde he is described as “black and sneering… really like Satan” (The strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) 2003:8) which already so soon into the book presents the idea of evil, hell and damnation. This sinister atmosphere and idea of mystery is reinforced by Stevenson’s lexical choices, he uses lexis such as “clouded”, “detestable”, “insubstantial mists” and “fiend” (2003: 11) which connotes to me this idea of secrecy, perplexity and malevolence. So soon in the novel we have been introduced to the impression of religion, which would have played a major role in Stevenson’s upbringing, ideas of heaven and hell, sin and damnation have been introduced by Stevenson’s use of the terms “Satan” (2003:8) and “fiend” (2003:11) already throwing the idea of morality into the picture. Utterson is utterly perplexed by his friend’s will and disturbed by the character Hyde therefore giving the reader a taste of the moral lesson that is yet to come. This idea of secrecy is continued when we first meet Dr Henry Jekyll; he is tense and dismissive of his friend’s concerns: “there came a blackness about his eyes. ‘I do not care to hear more’ said he. ‘This is a matter I thought we had agreed to drop’.” (2003:20). As readers we are made aware that Jekyll is conscious of his dangerous relationship with Hyde, and perhaps that he is aware Jekyll and Hyde’s deeds are already hinting at the ominous consequences that await him.
Another reoccurring theme present in ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ as well as Mary Shelley’s
‘Frankenstein’ is the idea of scientific discovery versus religion. At the end of the nineteenth century scientific progress was at a rate of fascination, ever expanding and developing, but this challenged theologists and provided many a moral dilemma for what was still a highly religious society. Scientific progress had religion and clergy worldwide fearing damnation for the masses! This conflict was and still is a vastly divulged issue for many novelists both in the early and late nineteenth century. Frankenstein is a prime example of this theme. Inspired by Galvanism a scientific development of time Shelley wrote about Victor Frankenstein who was a young and budding scientific mind, and a self-taught philosopher. Who after the death of his mother became crazed with the idea of mortality and the elixir of life “I thought, that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might otherwise renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption” (Frankenstein (1969) 1998:54). This idea of the elixir of life is condemned by his professors and colleagues and so in a veil of secrecy (and perhaps madness) he creates life and is forever haunted and tortured by his creation, and the consequences his scientific discovery has incurred. It’s moral being that only God can give the gift of unnatural life, if man dares to play at this his soul is damned and forever tortured. It is as if Shelley was daring to remind her society of the commandments and about worshipping the false idols of scientific progress.
Throughout the text, just as we watch Victor in Frankenstein, we watch Dr Jekyll’s decline from high social status, participation in his expected social normalities. The turning point in my opinion is ‘The Incident at the Window’ in this chapter Stevenson describes Jekyll as “some disconsolate prisoner” (2003:35), and as both Utterson and Jekyll propose to converse from the window was the window “instantly thrust down” (2003:36) after “an expression of such abject terror and despair, as froze the very blood of the two gentlemen below.”. I feel this signifies Jekyll’s complete abstraction from social normalities and already the consequences of his creating life and playing the role of God. It could be suggested that this is his punishment, his “terror and despair” are haunting him just as they did for Victor Frankenstein in Shelley’s novel. Adjacent to this in the following chapter Stevenson reinforces Jekyll’s odd behaviour by Poole’s distressed visit to Utterson. This chapter is entitled ‘The Last Night’ which already connotes finality and arouses suspicion to Dr Jekyll’s fate. It could also be suggested that Stevenson has intentionally entitled this ‘The Last Night’ echoing the bible story ‘The Last Supper’, in which Jesus has his last meal with his disciples. It is as if Stevenson is hinting that this is Henry Jekyll’s farewell. In my opinion this powerfully reinforces the religious ideology that is subtly sewn into the text.
‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” in my opinion is far more subtle than Frankenstein. Instead of creating a new life, Stevenson plays around with psychological progress of nineteenth century and the idea of the doppelganger, or the split personality.
Jekyll is a refined character of wealth and respect: “I was born in the year 18- to a large fortune, endowed besides with excellent parts, inclined by nature to industry, fond of the respect of the wise and good among my fellow-men” (The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde 2003:55) who appears to feel unfilled by the graces of the ‘good’ life, unsatisfied with high society he desires more, to fulfil the urges of his “two natures” (2003:56) instead just fulfilling his one need. Jekyll does this by his scientific progress creating a chemical potion in which he can be transformed into Hyde literally personifying the ‘low’ desires of Henry Jekyll. At first there was pleasure in the sin as revealed in the final chapter “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.” (2003:57), but as Jekyll’s confession progresses the reader learns that he has lost the power he once had over Hyde. “ I was slowly losing hold of my original and better self, and becoming slowly incorporated with my second and worse.” (2003:62). It could be suggested that this loss of power is an act of God, perhaps God taking control and teaching Jekyll a lesson: creating a malevolent life form, sin, murder and undignified acts shall not go unpunished. It is perhaps interesting to take into consideration the idea that God is omniscient. Jekyll himself states: “Men have before hired bravos to transact their crimes, while their own person and reputation sat under shelter. I was the first that ever did so for his pleasures. I was the first that could thus plod in the public eye with a load of genial respectability”. Perhaps Stevenson is hinting at the fact that whether you think you can get away with sin God is still all seeing.
When speaking of sin also it is important to take into contemplation that Jekyll’s fall is that of his own doing. His act of suicide is poignant and shocking but ultimately a great sin and in Stevenson’s Presbyterian society would have meant an eternity in hell. This not only reinforces the idea that God ultimately judges all, but also brings up the issue of evil. Hyde is constantly referred to by all of the characters as “evil”, perhaps it is not the idea of God’s punishment for Jekyll that Stevenson is suggesting but the idea that the devil’s grip that has tightened around Jekyll’s soul and ultimately led him on a pathway of sin and self destruction.
Gradually throughout the novella as readers we are led to believe that Hyde is evil, shrouded in secrecy and spoke of with disdain but perhaps we are mistaken. Dr Jekyll himself suggests in Jekyll’s doppelganger is an over exaggerated personification for the evil that exists inside all of us, and the temptations we as human beings contest with on a day to day basis. In the final chapter ‘Henry Jekyll’s Full Statement Of The Case’ Stevenson suggests that “all human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil” (2003:58), which reinforces the argument of good struggling to conquer evil, or through where only evil prevails.
Jekyll and Hyde is a moral tale one in which we as contemporary readers and intellectuals, tend to ignore. It could possibly even be considered a critical social commentary of Stevenson’s society. It is a warning to the progress of science, suggesting that humanity was not meant for unnaturally creating life. Jekyll’s tale is one of anguish, horror and suicide, yet is also of the difficulties of humanity. It is important to not let scientific progress or the desire for the unjust or unnatural take control of our lives, as it could therefore lead to our untimely demise; just as it did for Dr Henry Jekyll and Victor Frankenstein.