“The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” was a Product of the Times in Which it was Written
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The early Victorian era was one of great confidence. Its people felt reassured by the fact that the British Empire was one of the greatest since time began. They felt confident in the idea of ‘Creationism’; that God created humans and the universe to his own design so that they would be perfect. Britain was the first industrial country in the world and led the globe in the production of new machines such as locomotives. However, in the late half of Queen Victoria’s reign, this long lasting confidence was being challenged.
Events like the defeat in the Crimean War were challenging the Empire’s strength and people’s belief in it. Individuals like Burke and Hare were digging graves and carrying cadavers away to anatomy rooms for scientific experiments, which were being carried out to expand medical knowledge at the expense of common morality. Charles Darwin published his book ‘On the Origin of Species’ which challenged the idea of Creationism and therefore its religious basis. As being a god-fearing person was one of the central tenets of Victorian life and culture, Darwin’s theory could be seen to seriously undermine one of the essential values of Victorian life. The novella brilliantly represents Victorian society and culture because Stevenson explores the fundamental dichotomy of 19th century life; outward respectability and inward desire, and exposes Victorian social hypocrisy.
As an example of this duality, Victorian women dressed very demurely and were expected to behave in a certain way in front of the outwardly respectable men, but these “respectable” males often visited prostitutes, hired murderers and owned images of a pornographic nature. Events such as these showed that Victorian society was one of duality, where outwardly respectable citizens were simply repressing acts they committed behind closed doors, because they wanted to maintain their reputable appearances, and were ultimately scared of the consequences they would face if their true feelings were confronted. In this essay I will explore the links between Stevenson’s novella “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” and the society and times in which it was written.
Representing the important men of Victorian society, the main male characters in the novella are respectable bachelors who repress nasty goings-on and dark forces to do with themselves and others, so to avoid confronting said feelings.
Gabriel John Utterson is the main character in the story, who perfectly represents the dichotomy of the times in which the story takes place. He is a respectable lawyer, whose clients are among the most prestigious of London’s individuals. Being a respectable man, he was “embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment”, and was “austere with himself”. He only showed slight emotion “when the wine was to his taste” through “the silent symbols of the after dinner face”.
Utterson is not very outgoing and does not outwardly show his emotions, instead repressing them. Stevenson uses this to portray him as an introverted man, who, instead of letting his feelings out in the open, buries them at the back of his mind. Because Utterson does not show his own feelings to his friends, whether they about himself or others, “he was inclined to help rather than reprove”, he becomes the central character in the story. He is at the centre of the book’s social circle, as almost every character in the novella, from Dr Lanyon to Jekyll’s manservant, confides their thoughts and worries in him. Utterson sees the point of view of almost every character in the story, and does not judge anyone because of this.
Another of Utterson’s more important aspects is that he does not make friends easily. “his affections… were the growth of time” or he associated himself with “those of his own blood”. This tells us he was not hasty and rash with his decisions, but respectable and cool-headed, which is most probably the reason he became a lawyer. All of his friends are “those whom he had known the longest” and are all themselves seemingly respectable gentlemen, for example Dr Lanyon or Sir Danvers Carew.
Stevenson was very clever writing the novel, in that he does not just use people to represent Victorian society but buildings too. Things like doors, windows, keys and back entries are all very significant in the novella. For example, Utterson’s residence was respectable, like himself, but hid sinister objects and secrets in his safe. The safe is a representation of the back of Utterson’s mind, a place that holds dark secrets like Henry Jekyll’s will and other things that Utterson just wants to get rid of and not face the truth of them.
Although a minor character in the story, Richard Enfield is regarded as Mr Utterson’s closest friend and confidant. Although still very repressed, Enfield is a more outgoing and “well-known man about town”. Utterson and Enfield have two main reasons for being friends: one is that they are “distant kinsmen” and the other is that because they are both respectable, unsentimental and repressed men, they do not pose emotional demands on one another. This is why they “said nothing” and “looked singularly dull” on their Sunday walks together. However, these city walks were treasured and “the two men put the greatest store by these excursions” and “counted them the chief jewel of every week.”
As a respectable man, Enfield is not curious about the goings-on in common individuals’ lives. He has a rule that “the more it looks like Queer Street the less I ask” meaning he represses inquisitiveness in fear of what consequences he may discover. He is taken aback when Utterson enquires more detail about the story surrounding the sinister door because their friendship is normally a no-questions-asked relationship, which requires no emotional attachment. After this incident the pair, “vow to never return to it again”. By doing this they have lost the one chance to prevent further unhappiness and evil caused by Edward Hyde. Such are the dangers of repression.
Henry Jekyll is the reputable doctor in the book, well respected in the social and medical circles of London. He is a reasonably wealthy man, having being “born to a large fortune”, and delved in the experiments of science to find new knowledge. His residence was pleasant and respectable too, and “wore a great air of wealth and comfort”. The hall of the house was described by Utterson to be “the pleasantest room in London”. The man who admitted Mr Utterson to the house was “a well-dressed, elderly servant” by the name of Poole. This displays Jekyll’s wealth and prestige, because only the wealthy and important could afford manservants and maids, of which Dr Jekyll had many. This makes it hard to believe that he is sheltering Mr Hyde and all his evil secrets and deeds at the rear of his house.
Dr Lanyon is another male bachelor character in the story and a friend of Utterson the lawyer, and another one of the many narrators that Stevenson uses to portray the novella. He is an elderly doctor, who is also very socially and medically respected. A former friend of Dr Jekyll, he washed his hands of Dr Jekyll because of his “unscientific balderdash” and “heretical” experiments. Lanyon is perhaps the most controversial and repressed man in the story, as he knows more about Jekyll’s experiments than anyone else, but represses this knowledge because he is, ultimately, afraid of what would happen if he dealt with the secrets of Jekyll’s experiments.
All of these characters I have mentioned have a dark, repressed and somewhat sinister side to them. They all hide taboo secrets and clandestine evil at the back of their minds, especially Jekyll, who not only represses his “Id” but tries to dissociate himself from it.
Utterson is a very repressed man and because he is not very outgoing, it is easier for him to bury his secrets and knowledge. His safe is a prime example of this. At the beginning of the second chapter “Search for Mr Hyde”, Utterson reads Dr Jekyll’s will and discovers that everything is to be left to Mr Hyde. Because Utterson is scared of these consequences, he represses them by putting them in the safe because the document had “long been the lawyer’s eyesore” and “offended him as a lawyer”. Although he is, repressed Utterson is confused about the matter and develops an uncharacteristic curiosity towards Mr Hyde, and goes looking for him in the neighbourhood that Enfield told him the story about.
Enfield, in contrast to Utterson, totally lacks curiosity. He is also very repressed. We see this when, in the first chapter “The Story of the Door”, he is “surprised out of himself” because Utterson keeps on pestering him about how Hyde entered the dingy building by using a key, and then after the conversation-cum-argument is over he says “I am ashamed of my long tongue. Let us bargain to never to refer to this again”, which shows his hugely repressive attitude and fear of consequences. In addition, in the first chapter when Enfield starts to depict the story to Utterson, he describes himself as “coming home from a place at the end of the world… at three o’clock on a black winter’s morning”. What was Enfield doing out at three o’clock in the morning? This makes the reader think about what he could have been doing and what he is hiding under that respectable faï¿½ade. Stevenson uses Enfield here as an illustration of the stereotypical respectable (or so thought) Victorian man.
Hastie Lanyon, in my opinion, is the most repressed character in the novella (besides Dr Jekyll). He completely dissociates himself from Henry Jekyll, as he says “it has been ten years since Henry Jekyll became too fanciful for me” He says that the experiments that Henry Jekyll conducted would have “estranged Damon and Pythias”. These two Greeks trusted each other so much that one volunteered to die for the other, and by saying that they would have been estranged from one another because of a scientific experiment is a powerful statement with a lot of meaning behind it.
Because Lanyon is so repressed, the secrets he hides and unpleasant truths he conceals behind his own respectable faï¿½ade flood forth when he sees Henry Jekyll’s transformation (described in penultimate chapter). This destroys him as he cannot face the horrible truth of the consequences that he has seen, and could not bring himself to believe that the transformation was true. Lanyon describes the incident, as “shaking his life to its roots” and that he feels he “must die” because of what he has seen.
These are the dangers of repression. The concealed truths build up until they are seen by the individual who does not want to see (and has repressed) them. These truths, out in the open, will shock the person so much that they will die or never be the same again.
I have not mentioned Dr Henry Jekyll in this section because he is quite different from the other characters in that he realises he has two sides, good and evil, and also realises that just by repressing the evil “troglodytic” side, nothing good would come of it. Jekyll’s main motive for his experiment was to separate these two “polar twins” so that he could live as a respectable man without a guilty conscience and the lingering base urges at the back of his mind. This way these urges could be released in the disguise of another body without the fear of being caught, or even disowned by the respectable men of the society (because the malevolent side of him could retreat back into the form of Jekyll), for example the fact he has already been renounced by Dr Lanyon.
His idea was to use his prowess as a chemist to separate the good and evil inside him and house the evil nature inside a new body, so that “life would be relieved of all that was unbearable”. Jekyll shows caution towards his experiment, which is eventually overtaken by his ambition to succeed with it. He admits in the final chapter, “Had I approached my discovery in a more noble spirit, had I risked the experiment while under the empire of generous or pious aspirations, all must have been otherwise, but at that time my virtue slumbered; my evil, kept awake by ambition, was alert and swift to seize the occasion.” This means if he had tried to conduct the experiment with religious or generous aspirations, the outcome would not have been so catastrophic and maybe the experiment would have succeeded the way it was meant to.
Mr Hyde is the form that Jekyll turns into after concocting his potion, “the figure to whom power is given”. In the primary chapters he is described as friend of Jekyll’s who rarely appears, and when he does, only at night. This immediately shrouds him with a sinister air of mystery. Stevenson uses Hyde as the personification of all the crime and felony beneath the respectable faï¿½ade of Victorian society. In the first chapter he tramples the young girl “like a damned juggernaut” and Enfield says he was “like Satan” and a “really damnable man”. Stevenson uses satanic language in describing Hyde, using words like “damned”, “like Satan” and “juggernaut”. What’s more, whenever Hyde appears the weather is sinister and menacing. For example, when we first encounter Hyde it is on a “black winter’s morning” and at night (3 o’clock). In the second encounter the weather is even more sinister; “a fog rolled over the city” and the night “was brilliantly lit by a full moon”. Notice once more that this scene takes place at night.
Stevenson also uses violent language whenever Hyde is present. In the fourth chapter “The Carew Murder Case”, the crime Hyde commits is described as one “of singular ferocity”. When Hyde was talking to Sir Danvers Carew, we see him get agitated and then lose his temper and he “breaks out in a great flame of anger… carry on like a madman” Then with an “ape-like fury” he tramples Carew much like he did the little girl. This is one of the reasons why the novella is linked to Darwin and the theory of evolution.
It illustrates how the respectable Victorian men were the fully evolved humans, and yet Hyde was the ape, still primitive and animal, with animal instincts and strengths which allow him to be so destructive. Stevenson uses the theory of Darwinism to suggest that Victorians were scared of anything other than the creationist ideas of the church and uses language like “ape-like” to show this. Hyde then “was hailing down a storm of blows, under which bones were audibly shattered” which demonstrates to the reader the incredible, almost in-human force that Hyde unleashes on his victims.
When Hyde is present, he brings other people’s Ids to the fore. When Enfield sees him trample the young girl, it invokes the usually passive and peaceful man to let out a burst of emotion, saying that he “had taken a loathing to him at first sight”. After trampling the girl, Enfield, the “Sawbones” (the doctor) and the family of the girl demand compensation funds from Hyde. Hyde then enters the mysterious door which Enfield remarked and returned with ten pounds in gold and a “cheque for the balance on Coutt’s… signed with a name… very well known and often printed”. By this Enfield means Dr Jekyll. The family and Enfield believe the check to be a forged one and Enfield says to Hyde he believes the “business to be apocryphal” (meaning he believes the cheque to be of questionable authenticity), but when they visit the bank the next morning they find the payment to be perfectly real and genuine. This is where Utterson derives his belief that Hyde is blackmailing Jekyll.
Hyde also brings the women surrounding him to be “as wild as harpies”.Women, who are usually poorly portrayed in the novella, were secondary to men and were supposed to be on their best behaviour at all times, and this quotation shows that in this instance, they were not. This is among the dangers of repression, because when you bottle up emotions for a long time they can burst out aggressively and very suddenly.
Everyone who encounters Mr Hyde finds him difficult to describe, although all of his acquaintances describe him as deformed, but they cannot pinpoint where or how he is disfigured. Enfield says that “there is something wrong with his appearance… he must be deformed somewhere… although I could not specify the point”. Even Dr Jekyll admits in the final chapter that in the guise of Hyde “none could come near me without a visible misgiving of flesh”. He explains this by saying that “all human beings… are commingled out of good and evil: and Edward Hyde, alone in the ranks of mankind, was pure evil”. This is another link to the Darwinian theme of the novella. It is as if Hyde is not fully evolved, and is looked down on with disgust by the apparently respectable Victorian characters.
Mr Utterson realises part of the truth about Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in dreams. Having not met Mr Hyde, Utterson refers to him as “the figure”, because in the dreams Hyde’s face isn’t visible. Utterson concludes that if he could see Hyde’s face, then the link between the Satan-like juggernaut and his respectable friend would be uncovered. After seeing Hyde and Jekyll together in the second dream, where he sees them both in Jekyll’s bedroom, he describes Hyde as “the figure to whom power is given”, and that Jekyll “must rise and do it’s bidding”. This signifies that “the figure” is controlling Jekyll. This conclusion that Utterson makes leads him to express uncharacteristic curiosity and loiter around the door where the incident with Hyde took place.
Keys, doors, windows and rear entrances also have a certain significances. They represent entrances to the horrid world beyond the pleasant faï¿½ade of Victorian society. The first experience the reader has of these significances is in chapter one. The name of this chapter “The Story of the Door”, is the first clue. Then we read about Enfield telling this story to Mr Utterson after they encounter a street with “general cleanliness and gaiety of note”. On the corner of this street they see a “sinister block of building”.
The building “showed no window”, which instills an immediate air of uncertainty within the reader. The only entrance into the building was the door, which was “blistered and distained”. As we find out later in Enfield’s story, Mr Hyde uses a key to gain access to the building, and then brings back ten pounds in gold and a cheque for ninety. This is suspicious, as the cheque was not signed by Hyde. Because the building looks so sinister, Enfield then believes whatever happened behind the door was not honest or right. Thereafter, he calls it “Blackmail House”.
Later in the novel, we find out that the dark, dingy building is a rear entrance to Dr Jekyll’s estate. The building is actually a laboratory, which is where Jekyll performs all of his morally despicable experiments. It then becomes obvious that Jekyll’s home, like his personality had a dark side hidden from view.
The book has quite a few themes that Stevenson tries to put across to the reader. In this part of my essay I will explain the main ones and why they are important in conveying to the reader the fact the book was a product of the society in which it was written.
The central theme of the book is duality. It is not just any duality, but the “polar twins” of human nature: good and evil. There are many novels and non-fiction publications on this subject, including Steppenwolf (Hermann Hesse), The Duality of Human Nature (Socrates) and Frankenstein (Mary Shelley). Using my own example, if you type in novels on human duality into Google, the primary search result is The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Stevenson explores the duality in human nature, “man is not truly one but truly two”. Stevenson uses Jekyll to speak to the readers, saying that human beings are made up of both good and evil, an Ego and an Id. Jekyll then separates Hyde into a truly unique being. Pure evil. As all of man kind has two sides, Hyde is the only one to be purely one.
This is why he becomes so powerful and eventually takes over Dr Jekyll. Stevenson is clever, because in using the name “Hyde” he shows that there is an evil side hiding in everyone. The urges and wants of this personality are repressed by the society that everyone lives in. There is however, a small minority of people in which the Id breaks free. Such people, like Jack the Ripper, are dual-natured, but the evil side has taken over, turning them into completely immoral people. Hyde, however, is different. This is because he has only one personality trait: evil. Hyde has no barriers, he knows no bounds, and so he is amoral.
Another major theme in the book is repression and keeping up appearances. No respectable man in these times wanted people to realise that they all indulged in certain pleasures not worthy of respect. This is why all the characters in the book are shown to be repressed, introverted and unsentimental. The characters in the novella lack the ability to express themselves. The fact the men in the book stay silent when they could be helpful shows how the book is a product of the Victorian society. This is because the Victorians put a great show on outward appearances and their respectability. This was why they hid away bits of information (like Jekyll’s will) so that this information didn’t dent their appearances.
Another way that Stevenson shows that the book is a product of Victorian society, is the way he uses women in the novel. Women are very rarely seen in the novella, and when they are they are portrayed poorly. The main example of this is when the maid in the upstairs window witnesses the murder of Sir Danvers Carew (Chap. 4). Women were seen as secondary to men in Victorian society, as it was very patriarchal. They were also seen as emotionally weak, always breaking down in tears or fainting. This is what happened in this scene the maid faints “at the horror of these sights and sounds”. This implies that had a man seen the incident, he would have immediately called the police and the case could have been solved. But, as it were, the maid fainted and the police were called hours later, and so the culprit (Mr Hyde) was not caught.
Stevenson uses the main themes and characters in the book to represent Victorian society and show the book as a product of it. The novella perfectly mirrors the duality and dichotomy of Victorian society by using Dr Henry Jekyll to represent the respectable side of the society and Mr Hyde to represent the dark and evil layer lurking beneath the pleasant faï¿½ade. Stevenson also portrays the social hypocrisy that was present in the Victorian times in the book. This is why the Victorian population were so shocked by the first publication of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, because the people could see a reflection of their society in the book. The book also shows what could happen to Victorian society if repression continued, because, like Hyde, the disgusting happenings below the surface would build up, burst out and destroy Victorian reputation and appearance.