Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 283

In Mary Reilly, Valerie Martin retells Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The central theme is the intertwined nature of good and evil. Martin changes up the story to emphasize the class and gender divisions of British Victorian society. Mary, the hero, is a housemaid employed by Dr. Jekyll. As she gradually becomes aware that something is dreadfully amiss in the doctor’s household, she places herself in danger. While Martin does not directly criticize Stevenson, by making a woman the central character, she highlights the contradictions not only of Victorian society but also of the dominant forms of literature of the day, as women were minor or passive characters in the original work.

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One theme is the structural inequality of gender in late nineteenth-century England. Mary, a young working woman who has been the victim of her father’s abuse, and the female victims murdered by Mr. Hyde are shown as vulnerable primarily because of their gender. A closely related theme is class inequality: in combination with gender, the harsh limitations of the English class structure are also emphasized. While Mary has gained some education, it is not enough to propel her out of her class position; her chances of leaving service are slim to none.

Returning to the primary good versus evil theme, Mary’s involvement in the doctor’s household, as he both confides in her and aims to make her complicit, cast doubt on the concepts as opposite ends of the spectrum. By expanding the story beyond the central conflict within one middle-aged man, as Stevenson had done, to involve a young woman, Martin introduces further gradations of the complexities of human nature.

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