In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, what comments does Stevenson make about the social world of the novel?

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Stevenson invites us to consider late Victorian society as ”doubled” in some way. The Jekyl/Hyde dichtomy can be understood in Freudian terms, in the sense that Jekyl, as the moral center of authority, represents the superego, while Hyde, the chaotic character of violence and passion, represents the id. What’s missing, of course, is the consciousness that controls both. I’m not sure that Stevenson felt that humans are basically two beings; I think it is more accurate to say that societal pressures split people into two parts: a moral “mask” they show the world, and a darker, perhaps truer, identity that can exist only in the shadows. The missing “ego” in the book, the synthesis of Jekyl and Hyde, takes the form of the narrative itself. The logic of the mystery/thriller genre provides a way to resolve the Jekyl/Hyde split and understand the story. Like the ego, the “rules” of the genre neutralize the more extreme elements of superego and id, and join them together into a recognizable whole. In this way the narrative itself can be seen as a kind of critique of social expectations and customs.

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In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Stevenson is providing us with a critical commentary on Victorian society. Its says a lot about this society, he suggests, with its numerous restrictions on adult behavior, that the only way a man can be free is by turning himself into a monstrous, murdering psychopath. The stifling mores and rigid social standards of Victorian England prevent people from getting in touch with their deepest emotions. Those emotions become repressed, which in turn causes great psychological damage.

Mr. Hyde acts as a salutary warning of what lurks deep within our souls, which we ignore at our peril. Yet Victorian society as presented by Stevenson chooses instead to suppress human emotion beneath a rigid, unyielding moral code. Dr. Jekyll, a respectable upper middle-class gent, outwardly conforms to this code, but at the cost of suppressing his true individuality. It is only by resorting to dangerous, diabolical experiments that he can enjoy the kind of freedom denied him by society.

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In creating Dr. Henry Jekyll, a relatively ethical character who feels such intense societal pressure to be perfect, Stevenson seems to comment on, indeed criticize, the society that would drive a man to such lengths in order to rid himself of what seems to be a natural part of human nature.  Jekyll felt the need to "conceal his pleasures," as he writes in his final letter, and he felt a "morbid sense of shame" concerning them.  He "stood already committed to a profound duplicity of life," and the need to hide any moral imperfection (as determined by his society) compelled him to try to eliminate those imperfections altogether. 

However, he reasoned, and it seems that Stevenson would expect us to agree, that "man is not truly one, but truly two," and so Jekyll's attempt to rid himself of his socially unacceptable desires amounts to the attempt to eliminate a fundamental part of himself as a human being.  Further, his inability to control this side of himself, once he has unleashed it, indicates that his experiment should not have been attempted, that, in trying to eliminate his immorality utterly, he actually allowed it to become stronger.  Therefore, society's attempt to regulate morality to such a great degree, such that a well-respected doctor fears for his reputation over a few minor desires, must be considered not only unrealistic but also dangerous.  The more people feel repressed, the more urgent the desire to break through the boundaries imposed.

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