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

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Themes

(Novels for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1,494 words.)