The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is perhaps the purest example in English literature of the use of the double convention to represent the duality of human nature. That Dr. Jekyll represents the conventional and socially acceptable personality and Mr. Hyde the uninhibited and criminal self is the most obvious aspect of Stevenson’s story. The final chapter, which presents Jekyll’s full statement of the case, makes this theme explicit. In this chapter, Jekyll fully explains, though he does not use the Freudian terminology, that what he has achieved is a split between the id and the superego.
Until Jekyll’s letter explains all, Utterson tries to find naturalistic explanations for events that seem to deny such explanations. The tale is a pseudoscientific detective story in which Utterson plays “Seek” to Jekyll’s “Hide.” The pun on Hyde’s name reflects the paradox of his nature, for even as Utterson searches for him, he is hidden within Jekyll. Hyde is always where Jekyll is not, even as he is always, of course, where Jekyll is. What Hyde embodies in the structure of the story is his essentially hidden nature.
A central theme throughout the story, which serves to negate verbal attempts to account for and explain the mystery, is the theme of seeing. In the opening chapter, in describing the trampling of a child, Enfield says, “It sounds like nothing to hear, but it was hellish to see.” Although Hyde gives a strong impression of deformity, Enfield cannot specify the nature of the deformity.
Utterson is a “lover of the sane and customary sides of life,” but the mystery of Hyde touches his imagination. He believes that if he can only set eyes on Hyde, the mystery will roll away. Even Jekyll himself says, “My position . . . is one of those affairs that cannot be mended by talking.” The irony is that all Stevenson has to work with is words; all that Jekyll can use to account for Hyde is words. Even Jekyll’s words are hidden, however, as if within nesting Chinese boxes, in the letter within the letter that reveals all.
When Utterson comes to Jekyll’s home, he still tries to account for the mystery of Hyde in a naturalistic way, but his explanation cannot account for the enigma at the center of the story—Hyde’s ability to hide. In the letter from Lanyon, the only man allowed to see the mysterious transformation, the reader gets an idea of the structural problem of the story: how to project the psychological reality of the double in a story that attempts to be plausible and realistic rather than allegorical. Lanyon’s letter says that his soul sickened at what he saw. It is indeed the hidden that can be manifested but not described that haunts the center of this thematically simple but structurally complex tale.
The novelette is told from a variety of points of view and focuses on the search for the connection between the saintly Jekyll and the demon Hyde and concludes with the doctor’s written confession of the experiments that ultimately render him permanently transformed into the Hyde figure. In his confession Jekyll admits that Hyde has taken over as his true nature and that he allows himself to be transformed. It is only after he discovers that he is unable to reassert control over the experiment, even though he is using ever stronger drugs, that he shuts himself in the laboratory and commits suicide by taking a lethal dose of poison.
More than a stock tale of science gone wrong, this work contains a serious discussion of the duality of human nature with the uncomfortable and inescapable conclusion that evil is not only more powerful than good but also more attractive. In the Hyde personality Jekyll is provided a welcome escape from the oppressive respectability of his life.
Stevenson attacks the rather heavy-handed morality and religious principles of the late Victorian world and charges that repression of natural urges can result in monstrosities as grotesque as those perpetrated by Hyde. Jekyll’s need for freedom from conventionality is strong enough that he is seduced into not only experimenting with drugs but also into willingly succumbing to Hyde’s persona. It is a disturbing tale which indicts the notion of progress through science while revealing a pre-Freudian glimpse of the beasts which hide within the human psyche.
Eigner, Edwin M. Robert Louis Stevenson and Romantic Tradition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966. Relates The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to the tradition of the nineteenth century prose romance. As evidence, Eigner considers the novella’s narrative structure, the theme of pursuit, and the struggle of the hero against self.
Geduld, Harry M., ed. The Definitive “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” Companion. New York: Garland, 1983. An anthology offering a wide spectrum of approaches from commentary to parodies and sequels. Appendices list the main editions; recordings; staged, filmed, and televised versions; and published and unpublished adaptions.
Jefford, Andrew. “Dr. Jekyll and Professor Nabokov: Reading a Reading.” In Robert Louis Stevenson, edited by Andrew Noble. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1983. Evaluates the main points of writer and teacher Vladimir Nabokov’s eccentric reading of the work. Provides a brief summary of Nabokov’s lecture.
Maixner, Paul, ed. “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” In Robert Louis Stevenson: The Critical Heritage. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981. This selection of opinions from Stevenson’s contemporaries, while often superficial and out of date, is of historical interest. Includes a rejoinder by Stevenson to his critics.
Swearingen, Roger G. The Prose Writings of Robert Louis Stevenson: A Guide. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1980. Supplies details regarding publication and Stevenson’s sources of inspiration. Draws on letters, memoirs, and interviews to discuss the circumstances surrounding the writing of the work.