The Strange Case of the Id, the Ego, and the Superego: Jekyll and Hyde as the Unconscious Mind
While R. L. Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was published a few years prior to Sigmund Freud’s Psychoanalytic theory, it bears a strong resemblance to his explanation of the development of behavior. At first glance, the novella may come off simply as an early science fiction story of a scientist whose potion came with unforeseen detrimental side effects. This may be one base-level way to understand the plot, but the progression of psychological research opened new avenues to thinking about the relationship between the infamous Jekyll and Hyde. When considered in conjunction with Freud’s theory, the story can be interpreted as the internal struggle of Dr. Jekyll’s unconscious mind.
Freud’s theory of the unconscious mind includes three main components: the id, the ego, and the superego. Together, these are referred to as “the psychic apparatus” (McLeod). The id can be associated with pleasure; it is the unconscious force that drives us toward our intrinsic needs, importantly sexual and aggressive, but also our wants and desires. It seeks instant gratification, and therefore needs a moderator (Siegfried 1). In contrast to this, the superego is our mind’s sense of morality, typically learned from our parents. It urges us to go about satisfying our needs in a manner that is socially acceptable (Siegfried 2). Finally, the ego becomes the balance between the instinct of the id and the morality of the superego. While the id wants to fulfill its needs immediately without hesitation, and the superego wants to uphold social and cultural norms, the ego acts as the referee between the two and helps us satisfy our needs while still acting socially and morally appropriate (Siegfried 3). Of the three components, the ego is the one that enters everyday reality; the behavior that we exhibit to the world is the result of the ego’s moderation of the id and the superego.
How does this all come into play in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? Toward the end of the novella when Dr. Jekyll begins explaining his reasoning behind the experiment, he states that, “man is not truly one, but truly two”, and that he “was radically both” (Stevenson 1809), referring to the good and the evil that resides inside of him. He struggled with the ability to hold back his instinctive pleasures, so he dreamt of separating his good, moral self, from his compulsive, evil self. The struggle going on inside him can be related to the extremities of the id and the superego clashing against one another without the ego there to appropriately balance the two.
The superego in this equation can be represented by society itself. Jekyll’s whole struggle in life is the need to hold back from his urges in order to present himself positively to the public. Being born “to a large fortune” and “inclined by nature” (Stevenson 1808), Jekyll from the start was set up to be in a public spotlight, forcing him to practice good morals and ethics at all times. The ego’s job is to find an even balance between inward desires and outward appearance, but because of his status, he needed to suppress his id more often than set aside his superego’s morality. He says, “I for my part, and the nature of my life, advanced infallibly in one direction and in one direction only. It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognize the thorough and primitive duality of man” (Stevenson 1809). As he continued satisfying his moral superego, his instinctive id became in need of an outlet for expression.
The Jekyll side of him can obviously be seen as the ego, making an effort to control his primal tendencies in conjunction with the expectations of society. He describes his outward self as, “good among my fellow men”, and as having, “every guarantee of an honorable and distinguished future” (Stevenson 1808-9), showing his ability to perform morally and controlled in society. Complying with cultural and societal norms is the primary job of the superego, and he fulfills this duty when he is himself. Jekyll comes off as a typical character in the book because he embodies the ego, keeping his desires and tendencies in check just like any other person. He also has the ability to give in to the pleasures the id seeks by turning himself into Hyde, just as the ego has the power to lean toward one side or the other.
Mr. Hyde, however, is much different than Dr. Jekyll. Those who have seen Hyde describe him as “particularly wicked-looking” (Stevenson 1791), embodying the aggressive tendencies of the id. His actions speak for themselves when he tramples “calmly over [a] child’s body” (Stevenson 1781), and beats a man to death with his cane (Stevenson 1790), holding true to the impulsive and aggressive tendencies of the id. Just like the id, Mr. Hyde has neither constraint nor remorse for his actions, as he seeks only to satisfy his urges. As Dr. Jekyll, he must “conceal [his] pleasures” (Stevenson 1809), but Hyde is his relief from this. The “duality of man” (Stevenson 1809), Jekyll comes to notice from his excessive amount of time satisfying his superego becomes literal when he takes the form of Hyde.
When taking Freud’s theory of the unconscious mind into consideration while reading The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the story begins to take on a new, symbolic form of the mind’s struggle to create behavior. This may not be what was intended by R. L. Stevenson when he wrote the novella, but the knowledge of this psychological theory can change the reader’s reception of its underlying meaning. The struggle Dr. Jekyll faces between the need to comply with societal rules and the need to satisfy impulses is a very real one that every person unconsciously deals with before actively displaying a behavior. Freud’s theory takes this story to a more realistic level, and offers a guide for readers to deeper interpret its message of human duality.
Freud-Psyche. n.d. Accessed 2 May 2017. JPEG.
Jekyll-Hyde. n.d. Accessed 2 May 2017. JPEG.
McLeod, S. A. “Sigmund Freud”. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/Sigmund-Freud.html. Accessed 30 April 2017.
Siegfried, William. “The Formation and Structure of the Human Psyche”. Athene Noctua: Undergraduate Philosophy Journal, no. 2, 2014. Accessed 1 May 2017.
Stevenson, R. L. “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. The Longman Anthology of British Literature: 4th ed, vol. 2B, edited by David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar et. al., Pearson Education, Inc. 2010, pp. 1780-1818.