illustration of a face with two separate halves, one good and one evil, located above the fumes of a potion

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

by Robert Louis Stevenson

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How does Stevenson use London to explore his theme of duality in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?

Stevenson uses London's stark contrasts as parallels to the contrast between Jekyll and Hyde, emphasizing the differences in the man, depending on his persona, just as London is different, depending on neighborhood, time, and local population. A commercial street shows the contrasts clearly. The street is inviting and well-polished, but the surrounding neighborhood is dingy. Its “more florid charms” alludes to seamier hidden trade. The street presents as clean and respectable like Jekyll, but hides its darker Hyde side.

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Stevenson uses London to explore his theme of duality by showing the stark contrasts of the city as parallels to the contrasts of the person who embodies both Jekyll and Hyde. London can seem like vastly different places, depending on the neighborhood, the time, and the local population. Stevenson leverages this aspect of the city to emphasize the differences in the man, depending on which persona occupies his body.

A passage describing a commercial section of London shows the contrasts clearly:

"the shop fronts stood along that thoroughfare with an air of invitation, like rows of smiling saleswomen. Even on Sunday, when it veiled its more florid charms ...the street shone out in contrast to its dingy neighbourhood."

The street is inviting and well-polished, but the surrounding neighborhood is dingy. The "more florid charms" is an allusion to the seamier trade and shows that duality exists not only in the larger city, but within the very narrow street itself. The street presents as clean and respectable like Jekyll, but hides its darker side, just as Jekyll hides the Hyde side.

Stevenson shows how even inhabitants of nicer neighborhoods are not immune from the dangers of the dark and furtive sides of the city. Despite Carew's "high position," he is killed by the evil that lurks just below the surface.

Stevenson also presents the contrasts between light and dark as another metaphor for good and evil that underscores the duality theme and which is exaggerated by the London fog. Even in the light parts of London, the sense of security can be superficial because darkness is always nearby and the fog can sometimes obscure this proximity:

"Although a fog rolled over the city in the small hours, the early part of the night was cloudless, and the lane, which the maid’s window overlooked, was brilliantly lit by the full moon."

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London—and even the modern city in general—is the key to fully exploring Stevenson's theme of duality. The London street on which the novel begins is an important setting throughout the story. Victorian London was new and exciting, and Stevenson portrays it as both beautifully majestic and mysteriously dark.

The duality of the story would have a very hard time existing without London. Bustling crowds provide anonymity, dim gaslit streets provide the cover of night, and the urban underworld provides the perfect location for Hyde. Within this side of London, Hyde enjoys a certain form of freedom, and one could argue that Jekyll would not be able to pursue this duality without London being idyllic on one side and dark on the other.

London can also be seen as a direct representation of Jekyll and Hyde themselves. Jekyll contributes to London society and is also well-liked and highly-respected. He is the personification of idyllic London: intelligent, respectable, and generous. Hyde, on the other hand, is ugly, frightening, and crude. It seems perfect that he stalks the foggy streets of London after nightfall; we would never imagine seeing the proper Dr. Jekyll...

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lurking around during the night.

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London is a two-faced city. There is the respectable side, represented by the grand entrance to Dr. Jekyll's estate, with its butler and drawing room. But there is a back entrance too, suggesting that the two worlds coexist, overlap, and are eternally connected. The scenes in which Stevenson comes to describe the London underbelly are interesting in their presentation. Despite being one of the largest cities in the world at this time, London still manages to be deserted, creepy, foggy, surreal, and unsettling at these key scenes.

In the "Incident of the Letter," Stevenson writes this:

The fog still slept on the wing above the drowned city, where the lamps glimmered like carbuncles; and through the muffle and smother of these fallen clouds, the procession of the town’s life was still rolling in through the great arteries with a sound as of a mighty wind. But the room was gay with firelight.

Here we see this duality—the gleaming, cozy interior and the world that is strange, dark, anonymous. At other times, it is the interior which is the place of desperation, while the outside world is comfortable and safe.

Many Romantic novels set themselves in the natural world. Stevenson gets around this by making London itself both a civilization and a wilderness. In the last chapter, he writes, "It was a wild, cold, seasonable night of March, with a pale moon, lying on her back as though the wind had tilted her, and flying wrack of the most diaphanous and lawny texture. The wind made talking difficult, and flecked the blood into the face."

Here we see the wild power of nature invading the city—as we have already seen the bestial tendencies of nature invading the human heart.

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Just as Mr. Hyde represents the dark underbelly of Dr. Jekyll, the setting of Victorian London possesses such a duality as well.  On the surface, London is the civilized, cosmopolitan capital of one of the most powerful countries in the world. Society is polite, and high moral standards are firmly in place. This is one reason that Dr. Jekyll feels the need to experiment with his fundamental humanness in the first place.  He has found himself drawn to things -- what those things are we never learn -- that are less than seemly for a morally upright, well-respected doctor. Rather than deal with his own demons or accept himself as humanly flawed, Jekyll decides to try to eliminate his own darkness by separating it from his goodness. The problem?  Once separated, the darker part of his nature actually becomes more powerful than the good. Just like Dr. Jekyll possesses a fundamental human propensity for breaking rules or doing things that would not be socially acceptable, so too does London possess a dark, hidden, side: this is the era, after all, of Jack the Ripper and the sensationalized rise of garrotting (street robberies). While Londoners often tried to maintain appearances of propriety, they were simultaneously drawn to stories of crime and murder. Just as Jekyll cannot hide his dark side, neither can London or London society.

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How and why does Robert Louis Stevenson explore the duality of human nature in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?

Stevenson explores the duality of human nature, meaning that we have the capacity for both good and evil, by presenting Dr. Jekyll, a man who has struggled in vain with the darker side of himself that he wishes to suppress or eliminate. Unable to conquer it through the force of his own willpower, Dr. Jekyll has determined to try to separate his less scrupulous side out so that it can be eliminated and he will feel no longer feel a compulsion to do the immoral things it has previously driven him to do. Tellingly, however, the evil side of Dr. Jekyll proves to be more powerful than the good side, and it becomes impossible for him to control it.

Dr. Jekyll tries to look for an easy way out: he doesn't want to struggle with his baser impulses, he just wants them to disappear altogether. Stevenson seems to be making a statement about the necessity of the struggle and the terrible things that can happen when we feel the need to hide this part of ourselves. The incredible repression of this era, sexual and otherwise, only forces people to find new ways to gratify their less acceptable desires. It is better, perhaps, to accept that our baser natures are as necessary to us as human beings as our better natures are.

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