Stevenson’s Critique of Social Construction
After researching Robert Louis Stevenson’s early life, I have developed thoughts regarding his piece, The Curious Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. As a high school student I read this text and I can remember discussing themes, characters, and specific scenes but one thing that I cannot remember ever being emphasized was the underlying critique on social construction and expectancy of an individual in society.
Stevenson’s parents categorized themselves as Presbyterians and while they took this seriously, they did not strictly adhere and remain reverent to the Calvinistic beliefs and theories. A greater religious influence on his life was from his nanny, who was extremely assertive of her beliefs and caused stress and possibly even uneasiness about this faith for him as a child. He was an only child and due to the fact that different sicknesses frequently visited him, he missed major chunks of school in his early life. I think that this may have given him a social stigma, giving him the duality of belonging in school with others his age but also not fitting in or having a true sense of this experience. This probably gave him a feeling of detachment. This made me think of the way that Jekyll and Hyde are utilized throughout the story. If we compare these two characters to these attributes that we have discussed about his life, this creates an idea that possibly Stevenson channeled his underlying feelings later in life due to this involved detachment, living but not living. Jekyll is a representation of what Stevenson is supposed to be and what is expected of him, while Hyde is a façade of Jekyll that unmasks his true feeling of detachment and natural desires that are unacceptable to unveil.
Stevenson’s actual inspiration for this novel was from a nightmare that he had later in life. After writing the story and sharing it with his wife, she shared with him that she thought he could make a better story out of it. Therefore, he burned the manuscript and rewrote the entire story in only three days’ time.
Another important critique made through the text is the superficial state of society during the time of publication. He attacks the value placed on appearance in social standing. Often times the argument against superficiality can relate the idea of evil and allowing ourselves to succumb to the terrors of natural human desires and wills. If this was the idea that he was attempting to portray, then we can easily see this through the different aspects of Hyde’s character. Since Hyde is associated with evil through the text we can think of the different evil and malicious actions that he performs as an alternate way to view the “human nature” that we place ourselves as prey to when we give in to our natural desires. Ultimately the fact that hammers this idea home is that we have a seemingly normal and socially accepted doctor who is transformed into this savage figure, Mr. Hyde. This also presents the fluidity of characters between the two. I thought it was interesting that Jekyll referred to Hyde as “I.” “I looked in the mirror and saw Hyde, the pleasures I sought in my disguise, I awoke to see I had the hand of Hyde.” Later when describing the murder of Sir Danvers he again refers to himself in the action played out by Hyde, “I mauled the unresisting body.” These instances are interesting to me because of the duality between the characters. It reveals that in all individuals lie the tendency and ability to access these horrible motives and personas if we allow ourselves to release our guard to this side of ourselves. This reinforces the idea that good and evil are constantly at war, and while this is presented as Jekyll and Hyde in this text, it can be presented through each individual capacity for both sides of the spectrum.
I think that Robert Louis Stevenson made some large critiques on the values displayed throughout culture and society at the time. However, his arguments still provide thought-provoking ideals of human nature and the way that social construction can determine our conception of ourselves and our place in society.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. “The Curious Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Damrosch, David, and Kevin J.H. Dettmar. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 4th. 1. London: Pearson, 2010. Print.
Dury, Richard. “Robert Louis Stevenson’s Life.” The RLS Website. N.p., 13 Nov. 2009. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.