‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ was written by Robert Louis Stevenson, a Scottish writer, and was first published in 1886. It was an instant success, especially in North America and Britain, and was one of the author’s best selling works. Its success was and still is, in part, due to the sense of tension built up through the detail, the language, structure and themes within the book. It was written at a time of great change in the scientific world when there were many new medical discoveries being made and these were a central inspiration for Stevenson in this novella. There was also great interest in the recently published Darwin theories, which suggested that humans had evolved over millions of years from monkeys. The novella attempts to harness the interest in these new ideas and discoveries and puts them into a dark and compelling mystery.
In order to draw people in and keep them persuaded by the idea that what they were reading was not only possible but highly plausible, the story needed to have great suspense, tension and mystery. This is still valid and Stevenson’s use of many different and varied techniques are fundamental in building that suspense and tension which keeps the reader engrossed even in today’s very different world. ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ incorporates the mystery and horror genres to satisfy its audience. These genres are used as a springboard which allows Stevenson to successfully build tension, using a number of techniques including pathetic fallacy, thought provoking themes, terrifying characters and an uneasy atmosphere.
People’s curiosity and apprehension is now, as it was when this Victorian novella was first written, aroused and maintained from the very first pages. Stevenson uses long, descriptive sentences with many intriguing and evocative adjectives. These help us get a partial and suggestive image of the setting and characters. When describing Utterson as ‘lean, long, dusty, dreary and yet somehow loveable’, the author immediately gives this central character a sense of ambiguity, leaving the reader intrigued and wanting to find out more about him.
Stevenson continues to build tension by describing the friendship between Mr Utterson and Richard Enfield, a relative, as ‘a nut to crack for many, what these two could see in each other or what subject they could find in common.’ This tantalising description forces the reader to start forming opinions about what is going on and gives away just enough information to keep the reader wanting to find out more, thereby leaving space for Stevenson to develop the character of Mr Utterson slowly. This technique is used throughout the story and lets the reader slowly see the character of the reliable, tolerant and intelligent man change as the story of Dr Jekyll unravels, gradually revealing the significance and horror of the case.
Before there is even a hint of a case however, Stevenson uses the strange door, referred to in the title of chapter one, as a symbol of mystery in order to build up tension. Utterson and Enfield are on a walk in ‘a busy quarter of London’ when they come upon a door which stands out in contrast to the rest of the buildings in the street because of its shabby and dilapidated state. Stevenson makes the door mysterious by describing ‘a sinister block of building’ which ‘showed no window, nothing but a door on the lower story and a blind forehead of discoloured wall on the other.’ The reader is consequently left with no option but to imagine what could be happening behind the mysterious entrance.
This tension is added to by Enfield asking Utterson ‘Did you ever remark that door?’ and he continues to deepen the intrigue by adding that it was connected ‘with a very odd story.’ The mystery and intrigue of the door is further added to by the story. We hear about a collision between a man and a young girl which in itself was not unusual, but when we hear the man’s reaction as ‘hellish to see’ and ‘it wasn’t like a man’, we are hooked by the fact that this strange being goes through that very door. We learn that ‘nobody goes in or out of that but, once in a great while.’ The door has become symbolic of the evil which may lurk behind it.
The door is also the pretext which allows Mr Hyde to make his first appearance. His physical aspect and demeanour is terrifying and an extremely important factor in building suspense. He is portrayed as evil and obnoxious and is described as being ‘like some damned Juggernaut ‘and ‘hellish to see’. This entices us with the possibility that he is ‘actually’ evil and builds suspense because the reader would not want to encounter a man like this, therefore they can imagine the terror the ‘good’ characters go through on meeting this ‘monster’. When Enfield remarks that Hyde was ‘carrying it off, really like Satan’ he alludes to the possibility that Hyde is devil-like. There are references to evil throughout the book, making the reader wonder whether this man can really be as horrifying as they are led to imagine. The ‘hateful faces’ which encircle Hyde in Enfield’s story leads the reader to wonder what on earth the person in the middle of that circle could possible be like in order to warrant such hatred.
Evil and horror are built up by the atmosphere of secrecy created by Stevenson. When Hyde draws the cheque from the account of a respectable gentleman, blackmail is immediately suspected. The atmosphere of secrecy and the reluctance to ask questions is common. Everyone wants to hide things. The setting of the story contributes to the idea of secrecy and tension so that ‘the buildings are so packed together about that court, that it’s hard to say where one ends and another begins’ and seem to hold their own secrets. The Will in Chapter 2 is collected from ‘the most private part of the room’. As Utterson lies in ‘the gross darkness of the night’ the figure he sees in his dream is unrecognisable because it does not have a face and the setting is the dark and labyrinth like city. Secrecy and secrets are woven through the story and they are used to develop a sense of unknowing and suspense. They offer a background to important moments in the story.
The dark secrets of the door which the reader has been drawn into are revealed more fully when Utterson himself finally meets Hyde in chapter 2, ‘The Search for Mr Hyde’. There is tension in the build up to this meeting simply because of the description offered by Enfield of Hyde being ‘not easy to describe’ and that there is ‘something displeasing and downright detestable’ about him. Just before they meet, Utterson hears the footsteps of Hyde as they ‘drew swiftly nearer, and swelled out suddenly louder as they turned the end of the street.’ The carefully chosen adverb gives the impression of an animal. The author uses other words such as ‘savage’ and ‘dwarfish’ during the conversation between the two men to describe the animal-like nature and deformity that Utterson sees in Hyde. This builds suspense because of the constant threat that Hyde could suddenly go wild and hurt his new acquaintance at any moment.
Due to the dislike we already have for Hyde and the sympathy we have for Utterson, we are afraid for the safety of the latter in this first meeting. Hyde is clearly unpredictable and yet ambiguously understated. This subtleness is an attribute which Stevenson gives to Hyde to build tension during this first meeting. When Hyde answers the question about his name he answers ‘That is my name. What do you want?’ This shows how, despite his horrifying appearance and distasteful nature, he is still very calm, albeit in a demonic way. The reader has a distinct sense of unease around this Hyde character who can be so evil and yet so collected. He could almost be anyone of us. Stevenson implies throughout the book that everyone has an evil side to them. Tension builds because this evil side to them is a distinct possiblility and it could come out of them at any time. The duality of man is one theme that is extremely appealing and builds up tension because of the implication that Hyde could be in all of us.
In contrast, Utterson’s calmness is also used to inject a sense of fear and panic in the reader. During their conversation, despite knowing about the ‘hellish’ act of Hyde described by Enfield, Utterson remains calm and unperturbed. He is described as ‘undemonstrative at best’ and this shows he is not someone radical that jumps to conclusions, but someone who goes about things in the ‘correct’ way. This makes Utterson seem reliable and believable so when he does become curious, and especially suspicious, about this particular case it puts terror into the reader, as they think there must be something extremely abnormal going on to provoke such a reaction from such a sensible man. This is a very tense aspect to the story as the reader identifies with Utterson’s normality and decency and yet there is a sense of nervousness created in us by his coming into such close proximity with evil, and this makes us anxious.
Equally important is the use of pathetic fallacy: making the weather or setting match the feelings of characters to build suspense and Utterson is the main exponent of this. The author does this especially well in chapter 4, ‘The Carew Murder Case’. Utterson is driven to the murder scene which is ‘like a district of some city in a nightmare’. This description mirrors Utterson’s feelings of actually being in a nightmare. He simply cannot believe a person of Carew’s stature could have been murdered. The technique is also used later in the book in chapter 8, ‘The Last Night’, when Utterson and Poole, Jekyll’s butler, are on their way to Jekyll’s house. London is said to be ‘deserted’ mirroring how Utterson is feeling inside; alone in a world he is finding very difficult to understand.
Similarly, Stevenson uses the story of a murder and the subsequent investigation by Utterson into the murder to build up tension. He does this by getting three different witnesses to recount their version of events and still manages to withhold much of the key points that we would need to fully solve the mystery. This creates tension because it shows that nobody really knows what is happening, demonstrating that there must be something particularly abnormal that, even with this many accounts, the case is still unexplainable.
Furthermore in chapter 7, ‘Incident at the window’ we get the first hint that Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are the same person. Mr Utterson and Dr Lanyon are on one of their walks, as in chapter 1, and see Dr Jekyll at the window and he explains that he cannot leave his house because he is ‘feeling low.’ This strange behaviour builds tension because it gives the sense that something big is going to happen and the reader anticipates this with some amount of fear. The reader’s expectation of a major happening is met when Jekyll is about to enter the house ‘before the smile was struck out of his face and succeeded by an expression of despair and terror’ indicating that there is something evil going on in Jekyll’s head. Questions are beginning to find answers as the reader queries the fact that a doctor, a respectable profession, could be in such a terrible state of mind.
Subsequently the author aims to answer all remaining questions but at the same time keeping the tension high in the final chapter, ‘Dr Jekyll’s Full Statement of the Case’. In this chapter, we read the final letter that Dr Jekyll was able to write in his true form, before he turned back into the ruthless Mr Hyde. In it he states ‘if my narrative has hitherto escaped destruction, it has been by a combination of great prudence and good luck’ suspense is created because, although we know the letter has managed to reach Utterson, it feels as though we will never find out the true explanation for the strange goings-on. At this point when the reader is so engaged with the storyline it leaves the reader anxious and nervous that they may never know the outcome.
Finally, chapter titles have been referred to throughout this essay to better identify certain aspects of the novel but the chapter titles are not just labels for the beginning of new sections but are important tools also used to build suspense even before someone has begun reading. Chapter 8 is entitled ‘The Last Night’ indicating excitement and possibly even the end of the world. On the other hand, it could be the end of the Hyde case and a solution might beckon. Either way, it promises a thrilling ending. Indeed the title of the book itself ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ encourages the reader to be inquisitive about what is ‘strange’ and what kind of relationship the two people mentioned actually have. The word ‘case’ indicates that it is probably a mystery; like a police case. The title appeals to many different people as it offers the possibility of the story being mystery, crime and horror at the same time.
In conclusion, ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ is as compelling today as it was when it was first published. It works as a piece of horror and mystery because of the tension created in an almost effortless way by Stevenson, who is able to make an outrageous idea seem possible. As a reader, you are afraid but cannot wait to find out what happens next and much of that fear is fuelled by Stevenson’s skilful writing, but some of it is created by what lies deep inside us. Stevenson has understood this and used the techniques to make us delve a little deeper within us. The reader is left believing that somewhere out there, a doctor could be carrying out experiments right now.