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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The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Themes

The three main themes in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are supernaturalism, identity, and change and transformation.

  • Supernaturalism: The novel is an example of supernatural fiction, which focuses on metaphysical concerns and the struggle between good and evil.
  • Identity: Dr. Jekyll is troubled by the duality of his nature and so transforms into the diabolical Mr. Hyde.
  • Change and transformation: The transformation into Mr. Hyde allows Jekyll to experience a certain freedom from the constraints of Victorian society.

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Themes

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Supernaturalism

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a fine example of supernatural fiction. Supernatural works focus on metaphysical concerns, based on the need to understand the unknown and un-nameable. In primitive societies, reality that could not be comprehended was explained through folktale and fable—the foundation for all supernatural works. In supernatural literature at least one of the main characters goes against the laws of nature. The themes of these works revolve around good and evil, love and hate. One overriding impulse is to regain the natural order of the universe, to escape from the world of unknown terrors and return to normal day-to-day life. Readers respond to these works with amazement, terror, or relief as the characters struggle to return to that natural order.

One type of supernatural fiction focuses on the Promethean personality. This term was taken from Greek mythology. Prometheus, the son of Iapetus and Clymene, was one of the great benefactors of mankind. According to legend, he molded mankind out of clay and water. He later stole fire from the gods and gave it to man, who was then able to learn the sciences. Zeus considered these acts to be a form of blasphemy, and so he had Prometheus chained to a mountain peak in the Caucasus. During the day an eagle would tear at his liver, which would grow back during the night, only to be eaten again the next day.

The literature that contains elements of the Promethean personality includes Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll are especially Promethean. They are both scientists who defy the natural laws of God and the universe in an effort to create life. In each story there is little scientific detail; the focus instead is on the consequences of "playing God." This type of literature also relies on gothic conventions, especially setting details like desolate landscapes and dark alleys.

Jekyll explains his Promethean urges when he describes the seemingly altruistic motives behind his experiments. He determines that if the evil impulses could be separated from the good,

if each ... could be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil. It was the curse of mankind that these incongruous faggots were thus bound together—that the agonized womb of consciousness, these polar twins should be continuously struggling.

Like Frankenstein, however, Jekyll's ambition overtakes his caution. In his confession Jekyll admits,

the temptation of a discovery so singular and profound at last overcame the suggestions of alarm ... Had I approached my discovery in a more noble spirit, had I risked the experiment while under the empire of generous or pious aspirations, all must have been otherwise, [but] at that time my virtue slumbered; my evil, kept awake by ambition, was alert and swift to seize the occasion.

Identity

Dr. Jekyll disturbs the natural order of the universe because throughout his life he struggles to accept the dual nature of his identity. He determines that all of us are plagued with this duality: "With every day, and for both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed ... that man is not truly one, but truly two ... I hazard the guess that man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous and independent denizens." He explains that throughout his life he was "inclined by nature to industry, fond of the respect of the wise and good among my fellowmen, and thus, as might have been supposed, with every guarantee of an honourable and distinguished future." However Jekyll also admits to recognizing in himself a "certain impatient gaiety of disposition" and a failure to conquer his "aversions to the dryness of a life of study." Jekyll is troubled by "those provinces of good and ill which divide and compound man's dual nature" and so determines to rid himself of his baser desires.

Change and Transformation

This need to remove the troublesome part of his identity prompts Jekyll to defy the natural laws of the universe by transforming into the diabolical Mr. Hyde. Irving S. Saposnik, in his essay on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, comments, "As the mirror of Jekyll's inner compulsions, he represents that shadow side of man which civilization has striven to submerge: he is a creature of primitive sensibilities loosed upon a world bent on denying him. A reminder of the barbarism which underlies civilization, he is a necessary component of human psychology which most would prefer to leave unrealized."

Freedom

Jekyll must admit to experiencing a certain sense of freedom when he transforms into this "shadow side" of himself. When he becomes Hyde he notes, "I felt younger, lighter, happier in body; within I was conscious of a heady recklessness, a current of disordered sensual images running like a millrace in my fancy ... an unknown but not an innocent freedom of the soul." The freedom he experiences results from the release of his inner desires, which, being a respectable Victorian gentleman, he previously had to suppress.

Good and Evil

Stevenson's main focus in the novel is on this struggle between good and evil in Jekyll's soul. G. B. Stern in his book on Stevenson argues that the novel is "a symbolic portrayal of the dual nature of man, with the moral inverted: not to impress us by the victory of good over evil, but to warn us of the strength and ultimate triumph of evil over good once sin is suffered to enter human habitation."

Themes

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As critic Jenni Calder points out, by the time Stevenson wrote this novella,

The was deeply concerned with sending "a message about individual moral responsibility." Certainly, the author intended the tale to suggest the folly of toying with nature (as innumerable later works and motion pictures have done — and, especially as was to be done in Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, five years later) and the grim consequences of doing so.

In the present day, when so much is known (and dramatized) about multiple personalities, the allegorical aspects of Dr. jekyll and Mr. Hyde are obvious. Stevenson believed in the likelihood that there exists in even the most virtuous of persons a dark side. When he wrote the first draft of the text and was soon persuaded by his wife to make it a more allegorical work, he quickly agreed — the result turned what could have been a slender piece of science fiction into a classic. Some readers have gone so far as to find allegorical, symbolic significances in the names: ]e=je in French; kyll could indicate kill (suggesting "I kill"); Hyde suggests concealment, as of one's identity. In any event, Stevenson was surely setting forth the notion that every person can be two persons. Freudian psychologists might well agree that the "dark" person is the one that people often encounter in their dreams.

The fact that the outline for the plot came to Stevenson in a dream is not only relevant but, in a way, extraordinarily striking. The psychiatrist who introduced the first organized study of dreams and their meaning, Sigmund Freud, did not publish his Interpretation of Dreams until 1901; and, his theories about the tripartite aspect of the human personality were not advanced until the 1920s — yet, in the definition of the "id" can be found a character study of Edward Hyde: "The mass of unbound energies, both libidinal and aggressive, which constitute part of the unconscious and influence conscious action by seeking discharge and immediate gratification. . . ." This passage, from the Dictionary of Behavioral Science, could be something written by Dr. Lanyon about the fearsome Hyde. Today, when multiple personalities are a popular field of study, such an early insight as Stevenson's must be regarded as almost amazing.

Following Freud, Carl Jung, with his emphasis on extraversion and introversion, was keenly aware of the duality often found in the human personality (a phenomenon that many of his adherents believed to be universal, especially in terms of the private versus the public persona of the individual). Later psychologists, influenced by these early leaders in the study of the unconscious, persons such as Karen Homey and Ernest Jones, tend to rely on some sense of the now obsolete term "split personality" (the word "dissociation" often taking its place, denoting "processes [that] function independently of the rest of the personality") in their studies of aberrant behavior — professional analysts may analyze the phenomenon more thoroughly, but Stevenson dramatized it better than anyone else could.

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