Duality and Denying Our Primal Nature in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is one of the the Victorian period’s most prominent novellas, notable for it’s early interest in the duality of human nature, a theme that would run strongly in Victorian literature. Mild-mannered Jekyll’s transformation into the brutish and savage Hyde has inspired countless adaptations and the mere name Jekyll and Hyde immediately conjures the up the competing elements of good and evil within us all. I believe however that Stephenson intended The Strange Case as a more sophisticated exploration of primal aspect of human nature and the consequences of a Victorian society that was in equal parts fascinated by and dominated by its dedication to appearances and propriety.
When Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is boiled down to a basic good vs. evil conflict, Jekyll obviously assumes the role of embodiment of good, and, at a glance, his charitable, gentle demeanor and well-liked status among Victorian society within the story seems to back this interpretation. But a closer analysis of his actions show that Jekyll is not comparable in his moral singularity compared to Hyde’s blatant evil. While Mr. Hyde’s actions are demonstrably evil, with him taking active pleasure in the trampling of the little girl in the street and the murder of Sir Danvers, Dr. Jekyll’s actions are less clear in their moral alignment. As Nabokov notes in his essay on the tale, Jekyll is at times petty and vindictive, never resolving his dispute with Lanyon (Nabokov 10). Furthermore, Jekyll admits even when not under the domination of the Hyde persona he relished the sense of freedom and indulgence in sinful pleasure it brought him, while still condemning the action itself. In his recollection the events leading up to his death, Hyde confides, “And yet when I looked upon that ugly idol in the glass, I was conscious of no repugnance, rather of a leap of welcome. This, too, was myself.” (Stevenson) Jekyll relishes the release of societal constraint and personal responsibility, enough so that he continues willingly for a time embracing the Hyde persona.
This admission is the crux of what I interpret as Stevenson’s view of humanity, which I think show strongly the influence of Hobbes, who viewed humankind’s natural state without regard for or presence of authority as “a state of violence, insecurity and constant threat” (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy). This statement, particularly the part about violence, aligns with both how Jekyll feels when in the Hyde persona and how the Hyde persona acts. Jekyll notes, “It seemed natural and human. In my eyes it bore a livelier image of the spirit”, indicating that Hyde is not some unnatural evil, merely the side of Jekyll that has been suppressed by the rules of proper behavior in society. Without the pressures and constraints of society, this is the dominant persona. Hyde is pure evil because, as Nabokov puts it in his introductory essay, “In this mixture of good and evil in Dr. Jekyll, the bad can be separated as Hyde, who is a precipitate of pure evil.” (Nabokov 10) Indeed, Jekyll himself confirms that “even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both…” (Stevenson). This total suppression of the darkness within himself is what creates the pure evil persona of Jekyll in the form of Hyde. The evil is as much a part of him as the mixture of good and evil present in Jekyll. The serum merely peels away the constraints of society and self-restraint, suggesting that without those the self will revert to a savage, brutal state.
This denial of self is a key part of Stevenson’s exploration of duality in Victorian culture. It plays back into Hobbes views that humanity unconstrained was savage and self-destructive. Jekyll makes note that “The evil side of my nature, to which I had now transferred the stamping efficacy, was less robust and less developed than the good which I had just deposed. Again, in the course of my life, which had been, after all, nine tenths a life of effort, virtue and control, it had been much less exercised and much less exhausted.” (Stevenson) Again, we meet this idea that the previous propriety and caution Jekyll has up until now exercised in his daily life has in a way exacerbated the evil of Hyde. We also again run into the Jekyll admitting that Hyde has always existed within him, merely suppressed. This is the root of Stevenson’s fascination and potential criticism of Victorian dedication to appearance. Such an emphasis is placed on propriety and proper appearances that the evil within Jekyll is tucked and hidden away almost entirely, and left to fester. When it finally emerges under the influence of the serum, it is “a concentration of evil that already inhabited him..” (Nabokov 12) Looking back at Jekyll’s statement, “it had been much less exercised and much less exhausted..” (Stevenson), we see the implicit suggestion that the total suppression of our darker urges is an unhealthy exercise. Yet, Stevenson also seems to suggest that we do need society to curtail the extremes of our urges. There’s an unspoken element of moderation here. Jekyll’s anxiety and guilt stemming from his natural urges are plainly spoken, “Many a man would have even blazoned such irregularities as I was guilty of; but from the high views that I had set before me, I regarded and hid them with an almost morbid sense of shame.” (Stevenson) Here we see a plain admission that although Jekyll acknowledges the perversions of his moral compass are not unnatural and unique to him, his desire for respect and reputation within a very demanding Victorian culture forces him to fully suppress them. This suppression is what creates the monstrosity that is Hyde; the distilled essence of all the evil within Jekyll. Although Stevenson’s characterization as Hyde as a natural part of Jekyll’s being support a Hobbesian view that society and rules are necessary to rein in the excesses and self-destructive nature of humanity, he also expresses here that the utter subjugation and denial of our darker nature serves to damage us in a way that threatens to allow our inner darkness to overcome the barriers placed around it and allow us to dominate our persona. Without acknowledging the darkness within us, we can scarcely begin to master it.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Introduction. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert L. Stevenson, New York: Signet Classic, 2003. Print.
“Thomas Hobbes: Moral and Political Philosophy” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/hobmoral/. Accessed 2 May 2017.
Stevenson, Robert L. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Project Gutenberg. Web. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/43/43-h/43-h.htm#link2H_4_0010