Whenever you’re with me, Make sure it’s still me: “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”
Robert Louis Stevenson’s story “The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde” is successful, one of the most famous in horror literature in fact, because we sympathize with Jekyll and identify with Hyde. Mister Hyde, the malformed id of the story, has become mythic as a symbol of our nighttime selves, those unrestrained urges whose fulfillment our existence could not bear, our potential self that follows throughout our lives questioning our choices, which were, after all, made for us and not by us as children when we were too young to have a say. Hyde strikes us as embodying freedom, although he really has license, which is often mistaken for freedom. He is the hero of the piece.
Stevenson was aiming for the success he achieved with the story. At 35, he’d been writing professionally since age 21, but was still financially strapped and borrowing from his father, a civil engineer. The story was written in October, 1885 intended for publication at the end of the year. Christmas was once a time for the supernatural, at least in the literary market. Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Tale” is an obvious example of the once common practice in the book market of placing stories of ghosts, ghouls, and specters before the public in the Christmas season, dating back to Horace Walpole’s “The Castle of Otranto” in 1764, which launched the Gothic genre. The uncanny, the eerie, and the unnatural are all Gothic hallmarks, along with a pervasive atmosphere of decay in which the past hangs everywhere like Spanish moss. A rapidly industrializing England had a particular taste for stories of the repressed Medieval world rising to take its revenge.
Stevenson’s story both adheres to and breaks away from the conventions of the genre. The uncanny and unnatural figure into “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” in the appearance of Hyde, who strikes everyone who sees him as wrong and somehow malformed although none of them can quite place the particular deformity. But the story’s fascination with him is more medical than mystical. He seems to be somehow ape-like, a bit more primitive or farther back in the evolutionary conga line and is described as hairy, troglodytic, and simian. An idea of the time held that the criminally insane had regressed to a more primitive state of evolution and Stevenson attempts to bolster his story with the psychological and medical theories of the time, leading one Oscar Wilde character to remark the story read “dangerously like it something out of the Lancet.” Here, Stevenson breaks away from the Gothic genre sharply by setting the story in the present and avoiding the supernatural altogether. The transformation from Jekyll to Hyde is explained through drugs and chemicals. Stevenson is also somewhat ahead of his time in seeing identity as chemically constituted.
The story has so entered our collective consciousness that we forget the revelation comes at the end and throughout the story the reader is unsure what connection exists between the respected Doctor and the small, ugly brute that he is treating as an associate. As the lawyer Utterson investigates deeper into the mystery of why Dr. Jekyll’s will is made out to the apparent degenerate who trampled a small girl in the street, one implication is that Hyde is blackmailing Jekyll, Stevenson’s surprisingly astute comment on the Id’s relation to the social self. Another implication is that there is some sort of untoward relationship going on between the two men. Remember that Oscar Wilde was arrested ten years later under the anti-homosexual laws being put into place at this time. The implication would likely have been clear to readers who might have already associated Hyde’s Soho address with the vice and crime of the lower classes. When respectable members of the upper classes went a slumming one lure was illicit sex without consequence. Hyde is Jekyll’s vehicle for what society forbade his class.
Today, the story reads as somewhat hokey and the plotting a bit trite. It endures because it seems to point the way to the darker corners of our inner landscape, and the struggle to maintain a coherent identity. Struggle is a huge theme in nineteenth century writing, be it class based, historical, evolutionary, or psychological struggle. Psychological struggle appealed as a secular version of the struggle to maintain the soul’s victory over evil. The story implicates the reader in vice because we’d rather spend more time with the Mister than the Doctor. Jekyll represents the polite veneer of civilization that is hastily built on a shaky foundation of repression. We sympathize with his attempts to tamp down his uglier urges because we know a land of Hydes would be a hellhole, but we still relate more strongly to Hyde because he connects on a level deeper than rational thought. I believe the power of the story is the way it makes us complicit with its horrors, while pretending to be shocking us. We should be so lucky.