The Strange Case of Robert Louis Stevenson and Deacon Brodie: Exploring the Inspiration for Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr.Hyde, is a true psychological thriller, and brilliantly encompasses the idea of Victorian era duality. However, upon delving deep into the inspiration for this novella, the “fictional” element slowly unravels into a merging of the double lives of both Deacon Brodie, and even the author himself. Thanks to a fever-induced dream, Stevenson was able to imagine the story of Jekyll and Hyde after composing a play based on Deacon Brodie. For this reason, it is completely rational to defend the notion that Jekyll and Hyde is based off of both Brodie, an upstanding citizen gone astray, and Stevenson, a sickly writer who admitted to having a dual persona.

As a well-liked city councilman and carpenter in Edinburgh, Brodie was a figure many trusted . Brodie also took to making keys for people, serving as a locksmith for much of his community (Duran) . The problem with trusting someone to make your keys , however, is that copies of them can easily be made. This is precisely how Brodie’s “Mr.Hyde” side came out, as it was almost too easy for him to burglarize homes, without even having to use forceful entry.  Eventually Brodie was caught and arrested for his crimes, and was ironically executed on gallows he built himself, supposedly dying a proud man due to the gallows having been successful. While Jekyll and Hyde was certainly inspired in part by Brodie, the story’s Mr. Hyde is slightly more spontaneous and aggressive with his atrocities, where he would “all of a sudden” erupt in “a great flame of anger, stamping with his foot, brandishing the cane, and carrying on like a madman” (1790). Brodie’s criminal behavior was more meditated and less violent toward the victims of his burglaries, so Stevenson had to elaborate to make the character of Mr.Hyde as vicious as he is.

So how does Deacon Brodie have any connection to Robert Louis Stevenson? Well, it turns out that Stevenson had a cabinet made by the carpenter himself in his very own bedroom. Stevenson also grew up in Edinburgh, where Brodie was quite the infamous figure. In a interview with Stevenson’s wife, Fanny Osbourne Stevenson, she revealed that her late husband had always been fascinated with the idea of the “subconscious”, an emerging psychological theory at the time (Stiles). Not only was Stevenson fascinated by this theory, but he himself experienced a sort of “split” personality. His “normal” self was the rational side, whereas “The other fellow”, he called it, was “the sort of dark side, the creative, difficult, seething side of his subconscious” (Harman). If this does not scream Jekyll and Hyde, I’m not sure what does. The inspiration for Jekyll and Hyde was not solely based on the story of Deacon Brodie, but rather Stevenson’s own double consciousness that grappled within his head. Perhaps this was the obsession with Deacon Brodie that prompted Stevenson to delve deeper, and even write a play called “Deacon Brodie, or, The Double Life” with his colleague. The news stories about Brodie were interesting, of course, but Stevenson must have resonated with them to the extent that, combining his own experiences with the life of Deacon Brodie, Jekyll and Hyde was born.


Robert Louis Stevenson by Henry Walter Barnett

The play about Deacon Brodie was not so successful, but this was only the first step for Stevenson. Throughout his childhood, his parents were always obsessive about his health in a  hypochondriac way, which prompted Stevenson to become quite the unhealthy adult, both mentally and physically (Harman). Most sources on the topic agree that Stevenson, in the midst of a fever-induced stupor, was able to create the inspiration for Jekyll and Hyde. Combining elements from his play, as well as creative imagery from his dreams and own subconscious, The Strange Case of Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde can be summarized by the notion that “Man is not truly one, but truly two” (1809). Psychology and mental illness were studied more in depth after Stevenson’s death, so he had to draw from his own feelings of duality, as well as the story of Deacon Brodie, which was more of a crime story than a psychological case at the time. Today, a writer can pen a psychological thriller in the 21st century with easily accessible research at his or her fingertips, but Stevenson utilized his own concoction, combining his fevered imagination, unusual mental state, and an actual crime committed by Deacon Brodie to create a character that still intrigues today— Dr. Jekyll and Mr.Hyde.

At the young age of 23 years old, Stevenson was sent to France by his parents after a “collapse”, following their discovery that he had lost his religious faith, and, unbeknownst to them, became involved with prostitutes (Livesey). Was this the start of “the other fellow” who plagued Stevenson’s mind? While in France, he became acquainted with Fanny Osbourne, a woman he, allegedly, quickly fell in love with. In an account from Fanny, herself, Stevenson would burst into random fits of laughter and tears that alarmed her. It could likely be concluded that Stevenson was manic, but this is almost certainly what he referred to as his dual persona, as his main personality was that of a rational and calm being. Perhaps his “Jekyll” side had had enough of the mundane, tedious ways of life, so his “Hyde” had emerged. When Stevenson says “[m]y devil had been long caged. He came out roaring”, he could easily have been referring to both himself and his own (not so) fictional character (1814). The similarities when reviewing this text with newfound knowledge of its author are striking, and it makes one wonder which parts Stevenson could resonate with directly.

Stevenson wants his readers to ponder the consequences of suppressing our inner thoughts and feelings. Perhaps Jekyll and Hyde is his warning to us all to discover our inner dark side before it forcefully emerges on its own. In Jekyll and Hyde, the downfall of Dr.Jekyll is that Edward Hyde overcomes him and the “evil finally destroy[ed] the balance of [his] soul” (1815). It happened to Deacon Brodie, when his upstanding reputation weighed too heavily on his true desires, and it happened to Stevenson when he lost his faith and became involved with prostitutes. This poses the true question at play here: Is Jekyll and Hyde so fictional after all? Perhaps not. Besides the use of a “potion” to induce physiological changes, we may all have a Mr. Hyde inside of us, struggling to make himself known. By garnering inspiration from a real life figure and imposing his own experiences on the matter, Stevenson shows us that, if caged for too long, evil will eventually find its way out.


Works Cited:

Duran, Gabby. “Meet the Man Whose Double Life Inspired Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde.” all that’s interesting, 17 Nov. 2017, Accessed 3 Dec. 2018.

Harman, Claire. Interview by Sheilah Kast. “Robert Louis Stevenson’s Split Personality.” Weekend Edition Sunday, National Public Radio, 27 Nov. 2005., Accessed 4 Dec. 2018.

Livesey, Margot. “The Double Life of Robert Louis Stevenson.” The Atlantic Monthly, Nov. 1994, pp. 140-143, Accessed 3 Dec. 2018.

Stevenson, Robert L. “The Strange Case of Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde.” Vol. 2B. The Longman Anthology of British Literature, edited by Daniel Damrosch and Kevin J. Dettmar, 4th ed., Pearson Education, Inc., 2010, pp. 1780-818.

Stiles, Anne. “Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde and the Double Brain.” Studies In English Literature, 1500-1900;Baltimore, 2006, pp. 880-81. ProQuest, Accessed 3 Dec. 2018.


Barnett, Henry W. Robert Louis Stevenson in 1893. 1893, State Library of New South Wales. Wikipedia, Accessed 4 Dec. 2018.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division. Strange Case of Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde. National Printing & Engraving Companyn.d. N. pag. . Wikipedia, Accessed 4 Dec. 2018.