top of page
  • Robert Louis Stevenson

The Strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - critical review

After reading Oscar Wilde's 'Picture of Dorian Gray', I was interested in reading another Victorian novel that focused on the idea of the 'double.' 'The strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde', a short novel by Robert Louis Stevenson, looks at the duality of human nature. Karl Miller, writer of "doubles", says that the doppelgänger is a "literature which does the impossible." The strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde uses the ideas of advancing scientific development to portray not only the possibilities of mankind but the possibilities of within mankind: our true nature.

Something interesting in the novel was the underlying warning of the results of mankind going against nature. The Darwinian theory of evolution, in 1859, brought the human closer to the animal and portrayed a more rational approach to finding out about human nature, and opened more possibilities to discover the secrets that had been so hidden before. Within these secrets, there was a fear of regression in that evolution could reverse and be a two-way street. Stevenson envelopes this idea through the character of Hyde, the 'evil' side of the protagonist's nature, who is described as 'ape-like' and is described to 'snarl', which refers to the animal side of human nature. Other developments of theories started to develop that labelled social ills as hereditary and that criminals could be identified by facial and cranial developments: revealing Villainous tendencies. This was referring to crime as a natural phenomenon, arguing it could be recognised rationally and empirically, which links to Wilde's 'Dorian Gray', through Henry confirming that Dorian couldn't have committed a crime only based on his appearance. Therefore, the 19th century was a time of science and technology, with the belief that objective truth could be expressed in terms of mathematics and natural sciences and that human reason could solve all the problems of humanity. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde embody this idea, through Dr Jekyll desiring to know the true nature of humanity through a science experiment. The fact that the transformations of Dr Jekyll to Mr Hyde are not the result of a curse or magic powers, but instead a development of a scientific drug shows these ambitions of the 19th century. Stevenson uses the novel as a parable of warning to humanity, as the result shows the devastating consequences of playing with nature. Stevenson is showing that the human intellect is powerless against the mystery of human nature and the forces of evil are unattainable and unknowable, and Dr Jekyll is powerless against them. It is a more reasonable review of life, portraying that we can't and shouldn't find out about the secrets of human nature: since we are incapable of success and inferior to the higher forces that govern us.

Moreover, an article that I read after reading the novel highlighted the relationship that the novel has to biblical basis. The idea of human nature as constantly struggling between doing what is good and the equal desire to do what is evil echoes Romans 7:14. Steven's family were Calvinists and would have been familiar with biblical materials, and the other references to the bible that the novel contains: alluding to Cane and Abel, the story of Balthazar and Daniel, show that Stevenson used ideas from the bible in his literature. The idea of human nature as both good and evil represents Paul's display of humanity in Romans through portraying the idea of the war between the two members of our conscious, and the constant struggle of human will between good and evil. Therefore, through Stevenson using this idea and having a doctor trying to solve the question with empirical evidence and failing, shows that we are equally clueless to when science had not so much developed, and the only evidence for our soul was our own personal conscious. The disastrous consequences of Jekyll's endeavour, ultimately resulting in death, further confirms that we shouldn't try to unpack this mystery since nature is always superior to humanity: despite increasing rational and scientific developments.

Stevenson himself stated that the novel is an allegory about the nature and temptation of sin, and the question of even the most moral of people are just as likely to enjoy the perversity. Dr Jekyll appearance is described typically: "no exception .. Large, well made, smooth-faced man .. Every mark of capacity and kindness." The contrast of the names of the two characters: "Dr" and "Mr", along with the description of Hyde as "deformed", shows that all humanity, no matter their social status, intelligence level or gender, have this duality of human nature, and have this side hidden (or Hyde-n!) within. This universalisation of this state is even carried through the description of the scenery, in which the description of the dark corners of the city correlates with the dark side of the human psyche. Jekyll transforms to Hyde when it is night, and this use of the night and day perhaps reflects Stevenson's suggestion of human nature: that the good side of humanity can not exist without the evil side of it, just as night cannot exist without day. This interrelationship between good and evil asserts the answer to Jekyll's question: "how they, were they [the two sides of our consciousness] dissociated?" that they cannot be separated: they exist coherently and this is what forms the tense nature of humanity. This is evident through the fact that Jekyll and Hyde start to often transform into each other without the use of the drug, and they both die when one commits suicide, showing that the evil side is inescapable from the good. This view is echoed in the 'Picture of Dorian Gray', through Dorian destroying the painting of his corrupt evil soul destroys his youthful physical self. Therefore, not only is Jekyll's experiment a disaster, but it shows the exact opposite of what he desires: it does successfully connote the dual nature of humanity: both good and evil, but it then confirms that these can never be successfully dissociated from each other.

Furthermore, not only does Stevenson show these two states as permanently connected, but the struggle that comes with this creates the novel as a whole to be an ethical parable about the tension of human existence: "man is not truly one, but truly two" and portrays man as a tragic figure torn internally. The way Stevenson portrays this tension is through Jekyll almost finding the dark side of his soul attractive, describing it as "freedom" and "youth with a light step and secret pleasures." This represents the temptation within us to commit to that evil side of our soul. Furthermore, the novel is not just merely the sides of good and evil, but also the tension of fitting to societal and moral demands (Dr Jekyll) compared to following all personal pleasures (Hyde), whatever the result may be. This contrast of humanity is also shown in The Picture of Dorian Gray, through the two characters of Henry and Basel: in which Basel portrayed the fitting to moral and societal demands and standards, and Henry showing the hedonistic approach to life in which the only thing that was followed was individualistic pleasures. Stevenson creates this sense of temptation for evil for the reader, through Hyde being portrayed mysteriously as "not easy to describe .. Something wrong with his appearance … .. Extraordinary looking man." Through this description, compared to the "well made, smooth-faced man" of Jekyll, Stevenson tries to create the reader to be intrigued and have the desire to know more about the character of Hyde, echoing the human desire and temptation to know more about the evil side of our nature, which further confirms his point of the universal nature of mankind: not only that we all both have these two sides within us, but we all are constantly tempted to find more about and endeavour into the immoral.

Overall, the novel embodies the ideas of the 'double' to show the dual nature of humanity, and our inescapability from this inherent nature: no matter the level of scientific developments of theories. It becomes a warning to scientists in the 19th century trying to discover more about the secrets of our nature, and by alluding to the same biblical question, creates the idea that this mystery remains and should remain everlasting, and our only focus should be to recognise our nature and try to overcome the tension that we are inclined to and not be tempted by the 'evil' side of our conscious.

bottom of page