The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Robert Louis Stevenson said that the plot of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (first published without “The” as the first word in the title) first came to him in a nightmare and that, after waking up, he wrote the first draft in three days. Stevenson introduces the mystery of the evil Mr. Edward Hyde—the central puzzle of the story—early in the novel, but he does not provide a solution to the mystery until the very end. The reader’s first encounter with Hyde is at second hand, in a story told to Gabriel John Utterson, a lawyer friend of Dr. Henry Jekyll, by Richard Enfield, who saw Hyde trample a child. Because Jekyll recently has changed his will to leave all of his money to Hyde, Utterson is intrigued and begins to investigate. He fears that Hyde is blackmailing Jekyll and plans to murder him.

When Sir Danvers Carew, a respected member of Parliament, is murdered and Hyde is implicated by a witness, a manhunt begins, but Hyde cannot be found. Utterson begins to suspect that more than a murder is involved when he discovers that the handwriting of Jekyll is identical to that of Hyde, except for the slant of the letters. His suspicions deepen when he learns that Dr. Hastie Lanyon has developed hard feelings toward his old friend, Henry Jekyll. Although Lanyon is dying, he refuses to see Jekyll again.

The mystery that surrounds the relationship between Jekyll and Hyde is revealed gradually by means of a letter from Lanyon that is to be read by Utterson after Lanyon has died; however, Lanyon’s letter contains another letter that is not to be opened until the death or disappearance of Jekyll. When Poole, Jekyll’s butler, tells Utterson that Jekyll has disappeared and that Hyde is locked in Jekyll’s laboratory, Utterson and Poole break down the door. They find only the body of Hyde and a note from Jekyll requesting that Utterson read Lanyon’s letter.

The letter recounts a request by Jekyll to bring some chemicals to him. Hyde appears in Jekyll’s laboratory, and Lanyon sees Hyde swallow the chemicals and become transformed into Jekyll. The shock of witnessing the transformation apparently hastened Lanyon’s death. When Utterson opens the accompanying letter, from Jekyll, he discovers that Jekyll has been obsessed with a theory of the duality of good and evil in all human beings and that he has discovered a formula that transforms him into his evil side. When he begins to change into Hyde without the chemicals, however, Jekyll despairs, for after he exhausts his supply of chemicals he can no longer transform himself back. As he completes the letter, he changes back to Hyde the last time and kills himself.

Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a disquieting story about the efforts of an individual to escape his own nature. The novel offers an account of Dr. Henry Jekyll, a Scottish scientist who, after years of attempting to accommodate both his moral side and his pleasure-seeking side, becomes convinced that a separation of the two would be desirable.

In his laboratory, Jekyll develops a chemical potion that is designed to accomplish the separation and drinks it. After a “grinding of the bones” and a horrible nausea, he begins to feel “incredibly sweet” and free. Looking in the mirror, Jekyll observes not himself but Edward Hyde, a smaller and younger person than himself. Jekyll delights in the division of himself and in his new liberty, but he soon begins to lose control of Hyde, who can assume Jekyll’s form at will. The novel follows Dr. Jekyll’s struggle with Mr. Hyde, who becomes increasingly evil and whom Jekyll refuses to acknowledge as a part of himself.

The enormous popularity of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has aided the perpetuation of a persistent view that it is a simple fable of the division between the good and evil that exists in everyone. The complexity of Robert Louis Stevenson’s imaginative story of an individual’s conflict with himself, however, is evident in its multiple narratives. Through the presentation of various points of view, Stevenson escalates knowledge of events from the peripheral to the more intimate and at the same time deepens the insight into the psychology of Jekyll.

The first narrative, Richard Enfield’s horrified reaction to Edward Hyde’s trampling of a little girl, provides the first evidence of the existence of Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde. Enfield, a “well-known man about town,” finds Hyde unaccountably detestable. He also relates the reactions of others present: the women, whom the sight of Hyde makes “wild as harpies,” and a doctor, who like Enfield is sickened by Hyde and wants to kill him. Enfield confides his narrative to his cousin, Gabriel John Utterson, an attorney who is a friend of Jekyll and who practices self-denial in order to strengthen his own moral fiber. Utterson, through whose perspective the story is told, listens to accounts of Jekyll and Hyde told by other characters and sometimes observes Jekyll and Hyde directly. A tolerant person, he believes that Jekyll has perhaps been guilty of some foible in his youth and is being blackmailed by Hyde. Upon meeting Hyde, he too feels disgust and nausea.

The third narrator is Dr. Hastie Lanyon, who has written a letter to Utterson. A bold Scottish doctor, Lanyon has become estranged from Jekyll because of Jekyll’s “fanciful” theories. Dr. Lanyon is the first to ascertain that Jekyll is Hyde and that Jekyll is in Hyde’s control. His observation of Jekyll’s transformation into Hyde literally shocks Lanyon to death.

Jekyll’s narrative, a letter read after his death, is the one for which all others have been preparation. The most subjective account, the letter reveals his concerns that led to his experiments and the conclusions that he reached about them. Of great interest is his personal reaction to Hyde.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*London. Great Britain’s capital and leading city is the general setting for the novella. The story depends for its effect on a suitably gothic atmosphere, and its portrayal of London is one of the great triumphs of the work. However, in the view of many scholars, Stevenson’s London is based more on his native Edinburgh, Scotland, than on the actual London of his time.

The story’s London is full of ominously empty streets and glaring lamps; it is silvered by ghostly moonlight or drowned in impenetrable fog. Its streets echo with sinister footsteps, and it is a place of questionable neighborhoods, strange houses, and dubious doors. Fog penetrates the very interiors of houses; biting winds whip sparse trees against railings, and even in the daylight, fog and mist can create ghostly and frightening phantasmagorias. In this story, London is mostly a city of the night, a place in whose darkness or under whose lurid lamps a child can be trampled or a dignified old man be murdered. Stevenson creates the overwhelming sense that just beyond the warm hearths and respectable characters’ sitting rooms there lurks a dark and dangerous place.

Jekyll’s house

Jekyll’s house. London residence of Dr. Henry Jekyll. Like Jekyll himself, his house is possessed of a dual and bifurcated nature. Indeed, almost every detail of the house reflects symbolically his character and situation. Jekyll’s “official” house has a respectable and handsome facade, a door that is opened by an old and decent servant, and an interior that is expressive of wealth, comfort, and security. This house, or the public part of his house, is a perfect expression of the front that the eminently respectable Dr. Jekyll presents to the world.

In his investigations, the lawyer Gabriel John Utterson learns that what he has taken to be Jekyll’s house is actually only one part of a larger residence. The respectable house that Utterson first knows is connected through a back door and a small yard to a mysterious and sinister part of the house that is at once attached to, and separate from, its imposing opposite side. Every aspect of this dark side of the residence reveals something about Jekyll’s own other side. It is a dingy, secretive, disorderly place that contains a laboratory (once a dissecting room) and a kind of inner sanctum which is referred to as the “doctor’s cabinet.”

It is also worth noting that the small yard that connects the two sides of Jekyll’s residence was once a garden but is so no longer. Finally, the dark side of Jekyll’s house has its own front side and door that seem at first unconnected to the other side of the house; they are blank, ugly, sordid, and ominous. It is through the entrance on this side of the house that Mr. Hyde comes and goes. In coming to understand the strange two-sidedness of Dr. Jekyll’s house, Utterson approaches and foreshadows an understanding of Jekyll himself.

Utterson’s house

Utterson’s house. London home of Utterson, Jekyll’s lawyer. This house is comfortable, safe, respectable, and sterile. It is a place from which everything unconventional, imaginative, or odd has been expelled. It reflects Utterson’s dry bachelor ways and his masculine professionalism. Utterson’s house is the embodiment of Victorian respectability that Jekyll worships in his Jekyll form but rebels against in his Hyde form.

Lanyon’s house

Lanyon’s house. Home of Dr. Hastie Lanyon, Jekyll’s friend and medical colleague, in London’s Cavendish Square. This fashionable house reflects Lanyon’s stature as a physician and his general success. In this comfortable and hospitable home, Lanyon sees to his growing medical practice and entertains his friends. Like Utterson’s house and one side of Jekyll’s home, Lanyon’s residence is a symbol of a repressive but brittle respectability. When Lanyon witnesses Hyde’s transformation back to Jekyll within his own home, the sight utterly destroys all that he and his house represent.

Hyde’s house

Hyde’s house. Squalid residence of Mr. Hyde in London’s dismal Soho district. When Utterson finds the house, he experiences it and its neighborhood as a kind of dingy nightmare. The house is a dark and wicked place, but it reveals a few hints of Hyde’s connection to Jekyll.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Benthamism, also known as utilitarianism, became an important ideology in Victorian society. The term came...

(The entire section is 587 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The story is set in the 1870s, in London, England. The city, the buildings, and the people (whether servants or working-class or educated)...

(The entire section is 167 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Point of View
Stevenson continually alters the point of view in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which...

(The entire section is 1046 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The story is told from several perspectives. It opens in the third person, with the focus largely on the perceptions of Mr. Utterson. There...

(The entire section is 233 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Since there are so many parallel narratives, in a variety of forms (print, cinema, television, stage), it might be interesting to compare...

(The entire section is 189 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

This is a good reading exercise for students who can read at a fifth grade level or better. Like most works in an older style, it is more...

(The entire section is 295 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

It is difficult for a modern reader, surely familiar with the Jekyll/Hyde dual identity, to imagine the shock of those in Stevenson's time...

(The entire section is 178 words.)

Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

This novel will come as a refreshing change for readers and movie-goers accustomed to stories about self-indulgent and licentious characters....

(The entire section is 413 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1886: Britain annexes upper Burma after the Anglo-Burmese war, but revolutionary forces will try to regain control for several years....

(The entire section is 171 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. What was Dr. Henry Jekyll trying to discover?

2. What do his colleagues and friends do when they feel anger and revulsion at...

(The entire section is 202 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Are anger and hatred natural emotions? Are criminal behaviors necessary? Can people choose alternatives?

2. What benefits can...

(The entire section is 313 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Research Freud's theories on sublimation and apply them to the character of Dr. Jekyll.

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was...

(The entire section is 75 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Altick, Richard D., Victorian People and Ideas: A Companion for the Modern Reader of Victorian Literature,...

(The entire section is 268 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Eigner, Edwin M. Robert Louis Stevenson and Romantic Tradition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966. Relates The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to the tradition of the nineteenth century prose romance. As evidence, Eigner considers the novella’s narrative structure, the theme of pursuit, and the struggle of the hero against self.

Geduld, Harry M., ed. The Definitive “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” Companion. New York: Garland, 1983. An anthology offering a wide spectrum of approaches from commentary to parodies and sequels. Appendices list the main editions; recordings; staged, filmed, and televised versions; and published and unpublished adaptions.

Jefford, Andrew. “Dr. Jekyll and Professor Nabokov: Reading a Reading.” In Robert Louis Stevenson, edited by Andrew Noble. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1983. Evaluates the main points of writer and teacher Vladimir Nabokov’s eccentric reading of the work. Provides a brief summary of Nabokov’s lecture.

Maixner, Paul, ed. “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” In Robert Louis Stevenson: The Critical Heritage. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981. This selection of opinions from Stevenson’s contemporaries, while often superficial and out of date, is of historical interest. Includes a rejoinder by Stevenson to his critics.

Swearingen, Roger G. The Prose Writings of Robert Louis Stevenson: A Guide. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1980. Supplies details regarding publication and Stevenson’s sources of inspiration. Draws on letters, memoirs, and interviews to discuss the circumstances surrounding the writing of the work.

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Probably the most relevant influence was Edgar Allan Poe, whose story "William Wilson" deals with dual identity. However, the direct origin...

(The entire section is 134 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

There have been at least ten film adaptions of the novel, and at least four versions are available in video format through stores and...

(The entire section is 108 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

This novella has invited more adaptations than anything else that Stevenson (or almost anyone else wrote). The semi-Faustian aspect of the...

(The entire section is 280 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

• There have been several film, television, and audio versions of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The six silent films...

(The entire section is 168 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Mary Reilly (1990), by Valerie Martin, tells the fictional story of the young maid, Mary Reilly, sent to live and work in the house of...

(The entire section is 140 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The Complete Short Stories of Robert Louis Stevenson. Edited by Charles Nieder. New York: Doubleday, 1969. Includes Dr. Jekyll and...

(The entire section is 148 words.)