The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Essays and Criticism
by Robert Louis Stevenson

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Utilitarianism and Evangelicalism

(Novels for Students)

Two ideologies, utilitarianism and Evangelicalism, shaped the customs and mores of Victorian society in England during the nineteenth century. In Victorian People and Ideas, Richard D. Altick analyzes the impact of these two forces on Victorians, concluding "together they were responsible for much that was unappealing—to some Victorians as to us—in the age's thought and manners ... Both left their ineradicable imprint upon the whole of the Victorian period." They also left their mark on the literature of the age. In his classic tale The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson illustrates the destructive influence that utilitarian and Evangelical ideologies could have on the lives of the Victorians. In his complex characterization of Dr. Jekyll and his alter ego, Edward Hyde, Stevenson presents a critique of middle-class Victorian society and its adoption of the tenets of these two movements.

Utilitarianism, or Benthamism, was derived from the philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, expressed in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Utilitarians believed that self-interest should be one's primary concern and that happiness could be attained by avoiding pain and seeking pleasure. Evangelicalism, on the other hand, focused less on secular philosophy and more on the day-to-day lives and eventual salvation of its followers. In contrast to the hedonistic approach of Benthamism, Evangelicalism demanded a rigid code of conduct from its practitioners in exchange for the forgiveness of sin. It also sparked a wave of humanitarian reform that swept Great Britain during the mid-1800s.

Historian G. S. R. Kitson Clark, in his An Expanding Society, explains that the two ideologies:

are poles apart in their intellectual postulates, but in their methods of thought and in their practical results they are very much the same. In each case a hard dogmatic position is chosen and adhered to without the slightest concession to the fact that it is necessary sometimes to respect other people's opinions, and the implications of that position are put into effect remorselessly and coldly. They were fit creeds for a period of emotional tension and fanaticism.

Altick adds that in the commingling of these two ideologies in Victorian society, "a quasi-fundamentalist brand of Christianity was pitted against a vigorously skeptical, even downright anti-religious secular movement. Yet working from sometimes antithetical premises, they joined to create and rationalize what came to be known as middle-class values." Historian Elie Halevy in his England in 1815 argues, "The fundamental paradox of English society [in the Victorian age] ... is precisely the partial junction and combination of these two forces theoretically so hostile."

Readers first get a glimpse of one of these ideologies, Evangelicalism, in the character of Dr. Jekyll's friend and attorney Gabriel John Utterson. Stevenson describes him as "dry, cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse," and "dusty, dreary," and notes that his face was "never lighted by a smile." His friends and acquaintances "liked to sit a while in his unobtrusive company, practicing for solitude, sobering their minds in the man's rich silence after the expense and strain of gaiety." Utterson's repressed personality and his friends' appreciation of it provide a good example of the rigid patterns of conduct followed by many middle-class Victorians who were influenced by the tenets of utilitarianism.

Yet Utterson has a human side that refuses to condemn others for not adhering to a strict code of conduct. Stevenson notes that "something eminently human beaconed from his eye; something indeed which never found its way into his talk ... but more often and loudly in the acts of his life." Although he judged himself harshly, "he had an approved tolerance for others," as evidenced through his patience with Jekyll in all of his dealings with him. Irving S. Saposnik, in his essay on the novel, argues that Stevenson...

(The entire section is 7,874 words.)