Imperial fiction: Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Strange as my circumstances were, the terms of this debate are as old and commonplace as man.
Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)

Those who can read between the lines will see in this grim spirit-story (perhaps the most deeply tragic conception of its kind that ever occurred to any author) a warning the more terrible because couched in the terms of pithy fiction.Jekyll 07
The Era (1886)

The story of the writing of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a famous tale in its own right. Robert Louis Stevenson, seeking a climate that would ease his illness, was staying in Bournemouth, when his imagination was sparked by an interrupted nightmare.

Within three days he’d written a draft, which he read to his wife Fanny and his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne. Lloyd, then seventeen years old, liked it well enough, but Fanny argued that Stevenson was underplaying the allegory inherent in the tale. He saw her point, threw the manuscript on the fire, and spent the next three days writing it again from scratch.

What we have, then, is the second version. And we know it’s supposed to be allegorical. The question is what is it an allegory of.

The central device of the story is as well-known as anything in literature. Dr Jekyll is a thoroughly respectable gentleman in late Victorian London, ‘a large, well-made, smooth-faced man of fifty, with something of a stylish cast perhaps, but every mark of capacity and kindness’.

He struggles to live with the bad side of his nature. Not that he’s particularly wicked: ‘the worst of my faults was a certain impatient gaiety of disposition, such as has made the happiness of many.’ It’s more that his standards are so high that there’s a gulf between his little foibles and how he wishes to appear to the outside world: ‘It was thus rather the exacting nature of my aspirations than any particular degradation in my faults, that made me what I was.’

If it were merely a question of social conventions, he could flout them, as so many other single gentlemen might: ‘Many a man would have even blazoned such irregularities as I was guilty of.’ But he has society’s values and expectations hardwired into him. If he’s going to liberate his deeper desires, he needs to change his physical body.

So he begins to experiment. And he discovers a combination of chemicals that, when it is drunk as a potion, will allow the darker side of him to materialize into a different body, that of Mr Hyde. And then there’s a second potion that returns him to his normal self.

We never discover what Jekyll’s ‘irregularities’ are. We sort of assume they involve alcohol and prostitutes, but even that may be overstating the case. Jekyll’s closest friend prides himself on his austerity, and he has absurd levels of self-denial: ‘though he enjoyed the theatre, [he] had not crossed the doors of one for twenty years.’

Hyde, however, is far from such normal pleasures, and once unleashed, he takes on a life of his own. Increasingly erratic and violent, he finally oversteps all boundaries when he kills a politician named Sir Danvers Carew in an unprovoked assault of extreme ferocity.

Even Jekyll now has to recognize that it’s all gone too far. When he first looked on his alter ego in the mirror, he experienced ‘a leap of welcome. This, too, was myself. It seemed natural and human.’ Jekyll 05But the murder causes the scales to fall from his eyes: ‘That child of Hell had nothing human; nothing lived in him but fear and hatred.’

Meanwhile, Hyde is growing stronger and more persistent…

‘I incline to Cain’s heresy,’ says the London lawyer, Utterson. ‘I let my brother go to the devil in his own way.’ We’re only on the first paragraph and already the imagery is Biblical. Later there will be allusions to ‘the Babylonian finger on the wall’ (Daniel 5:5) and to the earthquake that freed Paul and Silas from the prison in Philippi (Acts 16:26), and a description of the human body as a ‘clay continent’ to remind us that God made Adam from the earth.

The phrasing is Biblical as well, so that Hyde is said to be ‘without bowels of mercy’ (Colossians 3:12), and when he hits a woman who accosts him in the street, it is recorded that ‘He smote her’. (Numbers 22:25) We might also note that Utterson, who’s our main guide to the story, bears the Christian name Gabriel.

His early mention of Cain sets up the expectation that murder will be done, but also carries echoes of God’s punishment of Cain. The first human killer was cursed so that the land he worked would be unfruitful – which was why he went off to found a city – but when he said he feared being killed by others, God set a mark upon him to indicate that he had divine protection.

Hyde seems to bear a similar mark, separating him from humanity. No one can quite put their finger on what it is about him, but – with the exception of Jekyll himself – everyone’s instant response to the man is one of physical disgust. Our first sighting of him is when he knocks down a small girl and is confronted by a mob of women ‘as wild as harpies. I never saw a circle of such hateful faces.’ A doctor called upon to examine the child catches sight of Hyde and turns ‘sick and white with desire to kill him’. Another respectable gentleman feels ‘a spirit of enduring hatred’.

One of Jekyll’s oldest friends, however, meets Hyde and gives greater thought to his instinctive revulsion: ‘I have since had reason to believe the cause to lie much deeper in the nature of man, and to turn on some nobler hinge than the principle of hatred.’

What is it that provokes such reactions? What does he look like? Here’s our first eye-witness, Richard Enfield:

‘He is not easy to describe. There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something down-right detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why. He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point. He’s an extraordinary looking man, and yet I really can name nothing out of the way. No, sir; I can make no hand of it; I can’t describe him. And it’s not want of memory; for I declare I can see him this moment.’

Utterson reaches for the same elusive imagery: ‘Mr Hyde was pale and dwarfish, he gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation, he had a displeasing smile.’ And when the police start to hunt the man, they find that the only thing common to all descriptions is ‘the haunting sense of unexpressed deformity’. It’s Utterson who comes closest to identifying the Mark of Cain; he sees upon Hyde’s face ‘Satan’s signature’.

The one clear description we have of Hyde’s physical body – which film-makers have relied on heavily – comes late on, when Jekyll wakes up to find that he has transformed during the night. The hand he sees is not his, but that of Hyde: ‘lean, corded, knuckly, of a dusky pallor and thickly shaded with a swart growth of hair.’

Am I over-reaching to suggest that there’s an echo here of the story of Jacob and Esau? In case you don’t remember chapter 27 of Genesis, the tale is briefly this: Isaac is getting old and approaching death, and resolves that it’s time to give his blessing to his older son, Esau. So he tells Esau, who’s a hunter, to kill a deer and make him his favourite dish of venison; once they’ve eaten together, he will confirm Esau as his heir. But Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, overhears this, and decides to cheat her husband for the benefit of her favoured son, Jacob, Esau’s younger twin brother.

Isaac is nearly blind by this stage, so the plan is for Jacob to dress up as Esau and take the old man a goat dish, which Rebekah has made as faux-venison. That way, he’ll get his father’s blessing and, once given, it can’t be taken back. The only problem is, as Jacob says, ‘Esau my brother is a hairy man, and I am a smooth man’. So the final bit of the disguise is to use the pelt of the young goats that have been killed for the food: ‘she put the skins of the kids of the goats upon his hands.’

And that’s where I think there’s a reference in the description of Hyde’s hand, ‘thickly shaded with a swart growth of hair’. The name of Hyde is also suggestive. Utterson has already drawn attention to one meaning of the name (‘”If he be Mr. Hyde,” he had thought, “I shall be Mr. Seek.”‘), but there is another: the skin of an animal. And in Jacob’s case, it’s the skin of a goat – we’re in Pan’s territory here.Jekyll 06

(Incidentally, to finish the Biblical story: The deception works. Isaac gives his blessing to Jacob, much to Esau’s fury; he resolves to kill Jacob, though unlike Cain, he doesn’t act on his fratricidal fury. There’s a lot of trouble with brothers in Genesis: see also Joseph and his siblings.)

Going back to Utterson’s phrase ‘Satan’s signature’ – this is not an isolated reference. This is the vocabulary that people reach for when talking of Hyde: he’s ‘devilish’, ‘hellish’, ‘damnable’, ‘sinning’, ‘evil’. He is, says Jekyll, a ‘familiar that I called out of my own soul’. By the end, Jekyll’s language has become infernal:

he thought of Hyde, for all his energy of life, as of something not only hellish but inorganic. This was the shocking thing; that the slime of the pit seemed to utter cries and voices; that the amorphous dust gesticulated and sinned; that what was dead, and had no shape, should usurp the offices of life.

There is, though, another vocabulary that’s also used. Jekyll talks of ‘the animal within me’ and ‘the brute that slept within me’, while Hyde is described by others as ‘troglodytic’, a ‘creature’, ‘bestial’, ‘like a monkey’, ‘ape-like’.

This is taking us away from Christian imagery now, nodding instead to Darwin’s still-controversial theory of evolution. In this perception, Hyde is our animal heritage, kept under control only by social strictures. If he is released from his cage, anarchy will ensue. (It’s notable that Sir Danvers Carew, the victim of Hyde’s fury, is an elderly member of Parliament.)

These two strands of reference – the religious and the scientific – overlap, most obviously in the sequence when we go back beyond Cain to the Fall itself. Locked out of his laboratory, and trapped in his incarnation as Hyde, Jekyll prevails upon an old schoolfriend, Dr Lanyon, to retrieve the necessary chemicals so that he might return to his old self. He then gives Lanyon a choice:

‘Will you be wise? Will you be guided? Will you suffer me to take this glass in my hand and to go forth from your house without further parley? Or has the greed of curiosity too much command of you? Think before you answer, for it shall be done as you decide. As you decide, you shall be left as you were before, and neither richer nor wiser … Or, if you shall so prefer to choose, a new province of knowledge and new avenues to fame and power shall be laid open to you … and your sight shall be blasted by a prodigy to stagger the unbelief of Satan.’

Lanyon yields to the temptation. Of course he does. He’s a scientist, and the ‘greed of curiosity’ does indeed have command of him. And so he becomes the only person to witness the transformation from Hyde to Jekyll.

But there are things that we should not seek to know, territory into which science should not venture. Because forbidden knowledge comes at a terrible price, just as God warned Adam in the Garden of Eden:

Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

The experience of seeing the transformation breaks Lanyon in spirit and body. ‘I saw what I saw, I heard what I heard, and my soul sickened at it,’ he despairs. ‘I feel that my days are numbered, and that I must die.’

As the episode shows, the scientific and the religious are impossible to disentangle. Lanyon and Jekyll may have known each other since childhood, but in recent years they’ve fallen out over the latter’s researches. ‘He began to go wrong, wrong in mind,’ says Lanyon. ‘I see and I have seen devilish little of the man.’ (Interesting choice of intensifier there.) He describes Jekyll’s theories of splitting the personality as ‘scientific heresies’. But there are also religious heresies: Jekyll is a Manichean who believes that ‘man is not truly one, but truly two,’ and who describes the good and evil in each person as ‘these polar twins’.

Jekyll talks about the impermanence of our physical incarnation: ‘I began to perceive more deeply than it has ever yet been stated, the trembling immateriality, the mistlike transience, of this seemingly so solid body in which we walk attired.’ But it’s not clear whether he’s talking about a Christian concept of spirit and body, or the mutability suggested by evolution. Jekyll 04Because if humans come from monkeys (the popular presentation of evolution at the time), then our form is temporary in a way that religion never dreamed.

And it also means we are no longer made in God’s own image. Certainly Mr Hyde – ‘this new life’ that Jekyll creates – is not in the image of God.

There’s another theme running through the story as well, a generational conflict. Since Jekyll and Hyde are both the same person, the familial metaphor one would expect would be that of brothers (as, indeed, the opening Cain reference suggests), but it’s actually it’s parent and child: ‘Jekyll had more than a father’s interest; Hyde had more than a son’s indifference.’

Jekyll, we know, is aged about fifty, but when he becomes Hyde, he rediscovers his youth:

I felt younger, lighter, happier in body; within I was conscious of a heady recklessness, a current of disordered sensual images running like a millrace in my fancy, a solution of the bonds of obligation, an unknown but not an innocent freedom of the soul.

Later, he talks of ‘the liberty, the comparative youth, the light step, leaping impulses and secret pleasures, that I had enjoyed in the disguise of Hyde’.

So the impulsive, selfish indulgence of Hyde is seen in terms not only of sin and of de-evolution, but of youth, of a time when the gratification of one’s desires is not yet fettered by social responsibility. Jekyll talks of himself as being ‘like a schoolboy’ as he dives ‘headlong into the sea of liberty’. Victorian ethics recognized that young men had a predisposition to anti-social amorality and sought to curb it. Hyde is that predisposition given free rein in the adult world.

The power of the story lies in a series of dualities, the split between Jekyll and Hyde representing conflicts between sin and restraint, science and religion, human and ape, old and young, society and individual. They’re all in play all the time, and they are all intertwined.

Towards the end of the story, Jekyll is confined to his laboratory, unable to get the chemicals he needs, and unable to leave because he’s begun turning into Hyde – a wanted criminal – at random times, without any warning. The two incarnations hate each other now, but neither can kill the other without destroying himself. So Hyde, when it’s his turn to be manifest, plays practical jokes on his alter ego out of frustrated spite:

Hence the ape-like tricks that he would play me, scrawling in my own hand blasphemies on the pages of my books, burning the letters and destroying the portrait of my father.

And there, in half-a-sentence, you have the ape and the blasphemies and the generational struggle all mixed up together. (Freud would have loved that detail of ‘destroying the portrait of my father’.)


One last thing that I find odd. After the murder, Hyde’s activities are investigated and ‘tales came out of the man’s cruelty, at once so callous and violent; of his vile life, of his strange associates…’

Who were these ‘strange associates’? We have just one hint. The murder committed by Hyde was witnessed by a sensitive and emotional maid servant. From the little information we have, it seems as though she has a place in a respectable household in a decent part of town; after all, the lane outside the house is proper enough that, even late at night, it is frequented by Sir Danvers Carew MP, ‘an aged beautiful gentleman with white hair’.

And yet the maid recognizes Hyde because he ‘had once visited her master’. What does this tell us about his ‘strange associates’? Maybe they’re not as strange as one might assume, not quite as removed from proper society. What we really want to know is whether she would similarly recognize Dr Jekyll.

see also:

The Beetle


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