‘Jekyll and Hyde’ is a late nineteenth century novel that incorporates themes of mystery, medicine and good and evil into a chilling tale. It is about a doctor called Henry Jekyll, who experiments by taking medicine to separate the good and evil sides of his personality. He takes a drug to transform himself into Hyde, the evil side of his personality, and enjoys the feeling of freedom immensely, as he can do whatever evil deed he pleases and yet be completely free of remorse. He does this more and more frequently, but in the end this results in him requiring medicine to stay as the good Dr. Jekyll and stop him from transforming into Hyde. The novel explores the concept of splitting one’s personality, and also the attitudes to good and evil and experimenting with science shown by the Victorians.
The Victorian attitudes to the new scientific movement were extremely hostile, as evidence suggested that the evolutionist theory that humans descended from apes was correct. This meant that we had no soul, which shocked and frightened a lot of the public, who were very religious. It undermined the Bible, which was taken very literally at the time, by arguing that the creationist point of view, the story of Adam and Eve, was incorrect.
The Victorians also believed strongly in the Christian morals of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, and that people must try to be as perfect as possible in order to appear virtuous to others. When somebody did something that was regarded as sinful by society, it was often covered up. This hypocrisy meant that people could be blackmailed into giving money to witnesses, if they had seen someone rich or influential do something shameful. The Victorians were highly suspicious of medicine that altered the mind, because they believed the mind was controlled by the soul, which God created. Therefore, the whole idea of splitting one’s personality into good and evil sides using medicine would have been regarded with fear and suspicion.
Throughout the novel, other characters refer to Mr. Hyde negatively, but nobody seems to be able to describe exactly what it is about him that is so disgusting and frightening. For example, Utterson thinks that he gives “an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation”. I think that this technique that Stevenson uses, leaving a lot of the description of Hyde’s deformity to the imagination of the audience, is very effective.
It makes Hyde’s appearance seem as frightening as possible because each individual imagines him in the way that they, personally, find the most terrifying. Hyde’s appearance is also referred to as “Satan’s signature upon a face”, which I think is especially effective as it links him with the devil, which should evoke a strong response in the very pious audience at the time. There is a reference to Hyde’s soul – “is it the mere radiance of a foul soul that thus transpires through?” – which I think is important because it suggests that Hyde’s God-given soul has been ruined by medicine. This reflects the Victorian view towards drugs that affect the mind.
Hyde’s actions also indicate his evil personality, especially when he “trampled over the child’s body and left her screaming on the ground,” and later on in the novel, with “ape-like fury”, murdering Sir Danvers Carew. I think this reference to a feral creature is important because it exaggerates the idea of all humans’ evolution, but especially Hyde’s, from apes, and therefore suggests that Hyde is a soulless beast and “hardly human”. Hyde enjoys the feeling of being able to do whatever he pleases, without the worry of being found out. A quote that summarises this well is, “I could plod in the public eye with a load of genial respectability, and in a moment, like a schoolboy, strip off these lendings and spring headlong into a sea of liberty.” This is because he can transform back into respectable Dr. Jekyll if he has done anything wrong and never be suspected of anything.
Jekyll, as a doctor, embodies many characteristics that are commonly associated with upper-class people in Victorian times: he is respectable, honourable and thinks very logically instead of getting carried away by emotion. He has, “something of a slyish cast perhaps, but every mark of generosity and kindness”. This is significant because it suggests that behind the kind and generous side to him that the public knows, there is something more sinister and furtive. I think that Jekyll being a doctor is a clever plot device because is enables him to experiment with chemicals and medicines without arousing suspicion, and it also gives him a very respectable public image.
A Victorian audience would have expected Jekyll, as a doctor, to be male, of high status and upper class, which is implied by the “pleasant dinners” that he often gives, and his “well-dressed, elderly servant”, Poole. It was considered superior at the time to think calmly, using logic, rather than to let emotions carry one away. This is reflected by the split personality of Jekyll and Hyde: Jekyll is a doctor, who is rational and thinks logically – “I am puzzled by this note… I shall consider it my duty to break in that door” – whereas Hyde is emotional and commits evil deeds on the spur of the moment, without considering the consequences. Therefore, Jekyll would be considered the good side of his personality; Hyde would be the bad part.
At the end of the novel, Jekyll, Utterson and Lanyon have very negative attitudes towards Hyde. Jekyll feels terrified by Hyde, as he seems to have taken control over his life and himself, and at the end, Jekyll or Hyde commits suicide – “this is my true hour of death” – though it is not made clear which side of his personality is in control at this point. I think this ambiguous ending is extremely effective, as it conveys the confusion that the Jekyll and Hyde character is feeling over his personality and identity. Lanyon is so shocked and disgusted by Hyde murdering Carew so brutally that he becomes ill and eventually dies of the shock. Utterson is more curious that upset by the behaviour of Hyde; he is the one that says, “I shall consider it my duty to break down that door” in order to see Jekyll and solve the mystery.
A Victorian audience reading this novel would probably have felt that Jekyll deserved the end he met, because they considered it wrong to experiment with our personalities and emotions. I think the moral of the story is that we, as human beings, should not play God by trying to change who we are. It also shows that we all embody good and evil at once. If we begin to desire relief from the public image of respectability, this could come in the form of a whole new, evil personality, as in the case of Dr. Jekyll. The novel also questions human nature by suggesting that beneath the public image of many respectable people there is a hidden, darker side to their personality. Anyone we know could be secretly nurturing a hidden Hyde inside him, ready to vent his anger savagely on us all.