What criticism generally goes along with Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Robert Louis Stevenson's story has become a classic mainly because it contains a truth about human nature, that everyone is a mixture of good and bad. According to the eNotes Study Guide (see reference link below), the story was published in 1886, and it is "Victorian" in the sense that it avoids offensive language, and especially any reference to matters of sex. Human behavior in Victorian times was--at least externally--prim and proper.

Stevenson had an excellent idea in creating an character who took pleasure in wicked activities, but because of the Victorian morality of the period the author was unable actually to describe any of the terrible things Mr. Hyde did during his evenings out on the town. This is pretty much left up to the reader's imagination. Instead, Stevenson focuses on a colorless character named Gabriel John Utterson, who decides to investigate Mr. Hyde and find out what kind of a hold he has on poor Dr. Jekyll.

What Stevenson's story seems to cry for is descriptions of Mr. Hyde in action. He is terribly, terribly wicked--but what does he actually do? He commits a murder, but many murders are committed by men and women who are motivated by an impulse of one kind or another but are not inherently wicked. The worst thing Hyde does is described by Stevenson:

"...the man trampled calmly over the child's body and left her screaming on the ground."

This is rather ridiculous. A little girl gets in his way, so he knocks her down and walks right over her body. It is merely suggesting, merely hinting at the sorts of things Hyde might do to children in addition to all his other misdeeds. There were plenty of child prostitutes in Victorian London, and Hyde, we would imagine, might have patronized them and even tortured and murdered them. He could have committed every conceivable crime while on his rampages. But no publisher would have considered accepting Stevenson's book if he had attempted to describe even one of the really wicked deeds Hyde might have committed.

Stevenson was influenced by Edgar Allan Poe--but Poe himself did not describe any of the terrible things a truly wicked man might do. The worst act in Poe's horror stories was Montresor's immolation of Fortunato in "The Cask of Amontillado"--and this was published in a women's magazine called Godey's Lady's Book!!

According to the Introduction to Stevenson's story in the eNotes Study Guide,

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is based on the story of Edinburgh's infamous Deacon Brodie.

Deacon Brodie's activities seem far more interesting than those of Mr. Hyde. Brodie (1741-1788) was a locksmith who used his knowledge of locks and keys for the thrill of burglarizing wealthy homes and at least one bank. He used the large sums of stolen money for gambling and philandering. He had at least two wives. He started his own little gang of criminals and was ultimately hanged.

According to the eNotes Introduction to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the author, who relied on dreams for inspiration, conceived the tale in a dream:

The next morning, Stevenson started to write a detective/horror story in the style of those written by Edgar Allan Poe, and three days later his draft was complete. After a critical response from his wife, Stevenson threw the draft in the fire and started a new one that he completed in another three days and revised during the next six weeks.

We can imagine the gist of his wife's "critical response" to the first draft and his reason for burning it.

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