Robert Louis Stevenson’s, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is probably one of the best known works to come out of the Victorian Era. This short novella griped the audiences of the late nineteenth century Britons, and its popularity has not wavered. You would be hard pressed to find an average person who does not know the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In 1894 Joseph Jacobs wrote that “it stands beside The Pilgrim’s Progress and Gulliver’s Travels as one of the three great allegories in English.” While this novella displays many of the values of the Victorian Era, it really anticipates twentieth century pessimism. It struck “an undeniable truth of human nature.” Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde captivated millions of people, while displaying many of the key morals, principles, and ethics of the Victorian Era; it echoed the controversial Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud. This story more relates to the modern gothic, than to traditional Victorian Era literature.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a story seen from many different perspectives. It is about a doctor that has a split personality, split in the sense that within the same human lies good and evil. This story can be interpreted as examining the duality of human nature. Within everyone, there exists good and evil, and to deny this tension results in evil being cast upon our human nature. Dr. Jekyll is a man who has covered up a secret life full of very bad and cruel deeds. He feels as if he is constantly battling within himself between what is good and what is evil, and is pushing away people valued to him. “After drinking a potion of his own creation, Jekyll is transformed into the cruel, remorseless, evil Edward Hyde, representing the hidden side of Dr. Jekyll’s nature brought to the fore. Dr. Jekyll has many friends and has a friendly personality, but in the nature of Mr. Hyde, he becomes mysterious, violent, and secretive and as time goes by, Mr. Hyde grows in power. After taking the potion repetitively, he no longer relies upon the potion to unleash his inner demon.”
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde represents a classic touchstone of Victorian sensibilities. This novella really embodies some of the most important values the Victorians had. Especially that the world, was one dominated by males. The Victorian Era, except for the monarch, was a male-centered era. Men had all the rights, privileges, and power in Victorian Britain. This story on moral behavior can best be seen from a male perspective. The lack of female characters or even the mention of a females name is non existent in this story. This peculiarity of this demonstrates the male dominance of the era. All of the central figures in the novella are gentlemen and professionals, they are doctors and lawyers. These figures embody what the era respected. The men are men of status, and the story would not have been as groundbreaking, had they been anything other than what they were.
The importance of status was heavy during the Victorian Era, and this characteristic rings throughout the story. Mr. Utterson does not say anything to anyone when Dr. Jekyll gives him a very unique will. Utterson thinks that Dr. Jekyll is being blackmailed by Mr. Hyde, but will say nothing to not endanger his friend’s reputation. Utterson tries very hard throughout the novella to protect his friend’s reputation, living up to Victorian standards. Many times throughout the story, characters are silent and fail or refuse to express themselves. They seem to be unable to a horrifying observation, such as Mr. Hyde’s appearance, or they deliberately avoid certain conversations. The characters refusal to speak on certain topics reflects the values of the era. Reputation and decorum were held above all things and anything that would compromise those, whether true or not, needed to be repressed. The rigid structure of Victorian society plays a roll in the development of the story.
Victorian England feared what Mr. Hyde represented. He represented the qualities that Victorian’s were supposed to hate and dislike. “There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why.” This is Mr. Richard Enfield’s description of Mr. Hyde. Hyde is not beautiful, graceful, or elegant. He is rude, and unappealing to everyone who meets him. The idea that these qualities existed in everyone really personifies the opposite of Victorian optimism.
At the end of the 1800’s, Britain had experienced intense social, economic, and spiritual change. Many new ideas were developing about economics, science, and the human psyche. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was a symbolic representation of the threat of these new ideas to the traditional Victorian. Through many political reforms, the working class had been given the right to vote. The working class started to show its power. The works of Karl Marx and his views on social class threatened upper class Briton’s standards. To some of the upper class, Mr. Hyde could represent this increasing political power of the working class. He was not a gentleman, or a man of status. He was unknown and new, as was the working class in politics. This comparison shows how, on a political level, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde challenges the ideas of Victorians.
In the area of religion, the writings of Charles Darwin had started to shake the world. His ideas of “evolution” and “survival of the fittest” (though the terms were coined by other people) challenged the traditional religious views held by the Victorians. Mr. Hyde could be seen as the strong individual who would survive while Dr. Jekyll fell. This victory of evil over good would definitely be a new and radical idea that would scare many Victorians. Stevenson exploited man’s fear of being close to savage animals brought about by Darwin’s new ideas. He shows the descent of an intelligent, respected, and rational man, to the level of a dumb beast. Many times in the story, Mr. Hyde is likened to an ape, “And the next moment, with ape-like fury, [Hyde] was trampling his victim under foot and hailing down a storm of blows, under which the bones were audibly shattered.” The idea that men were related to apes was one that shattered their traditional views.
Another new and radical thinker during this time was Sigmund Freud. His ideas about psychoanalysis and the subconscious are paramount in the story. Freud’s belief that human beings are powerfully influenced by impulses of which they are not aware can be seen in the story. Mr. Hyde could represent Dr. Jekyll’s subconscious desire to be freed from the boundaries this Victorian society has implemented on him. As Freud pointed out, the repression of the driving force of nature (Mr. Hyde) often leads to horrible, barbaric consequences.
Many have compared Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to that of the modern gothic, like Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. Dr Jekyll, not unlike Dr. Frankenstein, were men of science who attempted to discover more about the world and its people, become a prisoner of their creations. This comparison to the modern gothic novels pulls Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde further away from the typical Victorian side, and more towards the cynicism of the twentieth century. With the revelation of Dr. Jekyll’s letter at the end, Stevenson makes the readers reconsider what it is to be evil.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s short novella, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, had lasting effects on the minds of Victorian society. Many values, morals, and principles of the era are apparent throughout the novel, especially those of male dominance and the importance of reputation. Stevenson was very aware of the new ideas about economy, society, and the human psyche, and used them in his story. The works of Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and even Sigmund Freud can be seen as influences to Stevenson. This influence was also very apparent to the readers of his novella. These radical ideas drastically contradicted those of the normal and accepted. This story can be seen as a leader and groundbreaker for the modern gothic, as it has many similarities to such stories as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. This tale is not so much and example of Victorian optimism because it truthfully anticipates twentieth century pessimism.
Calder, Jenni. Robert Louis Stevenson A Life Study. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Kiely, Robert. Robert Louis Stevenson and the Fiction of Adventure. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1964.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. New York: Scribner, 1886.
NovelGuide. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Available from http://www.novelguide.com/dr.jekyllandmr.hyde/themeanalysis.html. Internet; accessed 10 April 2009.