Study Guide

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Themes


The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a fine example of supernatural fiction. Supernatural works focus on metaphysical concerns, based on the need to understand the unknown and un-nameable. In primitive societies, reality that could not be comprehended was explained through folktale and fable—the foundation for all supernatural works. In supernatural literature at least one of the main characters goes against the laws of nature. The themes of these works revolve around good and evil, love and hate. One overriding impulse is to regain the natural order of the universe, to escape from the world of unknown terrors and return to normal day-to-day life. Readers respond to these works with amazement, terror, or relief as the characters struggle to return to that natural order.

One type of supernatural fiction focuses on the Promethean personality. This term was taken from Greek mythology. Prometheus, the son of Iapetus and Clymene, was one of the great benefactors of mankind. According to legend, he molded mankind out of clay and water. He later stole fire from the gods and gave it to man, who was then able to learn the sciences. Zeus considered these acts to be a form of blasphemy, and so he had Prometheus chained to a mountain peak in the Caucasus. During the day an eagle would tear at his liver, which would grow back during the night, only to be eaten again the next day.

The literature that contains elements of the Promethean personality includes Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll are especially Promethean. They are both scientists who defy the natural laws of God and the universe in an effort to create life. In each story there is little scientific detail; the focus instead is on the consequences of "playing God." This type of literature also relies on gothic conventions, especially setting details like desolate landscapes and dark alleys.

Jekyll explains his Promethean urges when he describes the seemingly altruistic motives behind his experiments. He determines that if the evil impulses could be separated from the good,

if each ... could be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his...

(The entire section is 1000 words.)

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Themes

As critic Jenni Calder points out, by the time Stevenson wrote this novella,

The was deeply concerned with sending "a message about individual moral responsibility." Certainly, the author intended the tale to suggest the folly of toying with nature (as innumerable later works and motion pictures have done — and, especially as was to be done in Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, five years later) and the grim consequences of doing so.

In the present day, when so much is known (and dramatized) about multiple personalities, the allegorical aspects of Dr. jekyll and Mr. Hyde are obvious. Stevenson believed in the likelihood that there exists in even the most virtuous of persons a dark side. When he wrote the first draft of the text and was soon persuaded by his wife to make it a more allegorical work, he quickly agreed — the result turned what could have been a slender piece of science fiction into a classic. Some readers have gone so far as to find allegorical, symbolic significances in the names: ]e=je in French; kyll could indicate kill (suggesting "I kill"); Hyde suggests concealment, as of one's identity. In any event, Stevenson was surely setting forth the notion that every person can be two persons. Freudian psychologists might well agree that the "dark" person is the one that people often encounter in their dreams.

The fact that the outline for the plot came to Stevenson in a dream is not only relevant but,...

(The entire section is 494 words.)