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Themes in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Duality

Through the creation of Mr Edward Hyde, scientist Dr Henry Jekyll is able to explore the duality of human nature: “man is not truly one, but truly two”. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), he examines the way that people’s personalities can be multifaceted, and perhaps concludes that life is about making the right choice.

Duality is effectively presented through the use of two contrasting personalities (Jekyll and Hyde). The question is: can good ever be separated from evil? Jekyll narrates:

“I had gone to bed Henry Jekyll, I had awakened Edward Hyde”

The verb “awakened” perhaps echoes the sense of new science emerging with the industrial revolution at the time. It also shows Jekyll’s secret admittance of his creation to the readers. The novel features elements of the epistolary form, using letters and documents to offer different perspectives on events.

Temptation and Curiosity

It can be argued the novel is an allegory for the good and evil inside each human. It is, perhaps, an examination of the way humans struggle with temptation. The more Jekyll has to repress his interest and curiosity in this mystical science, the stronger Hyde becomes (especially after Jekyll takes a two-month “break” from Hyde).

In the final chapter, the doctor argues that he created Hyde to release his repression, explaining how he had “concealed [his] pleasures” in public. In fact, all the characters represent some sort of ‘repression,’ portraying the expectations for people of the time to hide temptations and curiosity. However, Hyde is the exception who doesn’t keep up public appearances.

Hyde dies at the end of the novel, so Stevenson provides a sense of good triumphing over evil.

Morality

In the Victorian era, there were expectations to uphold social norms, yet Stevenson creates a character that embodies the complete opposite. Hyde acts without restraint and without societal expectation. He even “trampled over the child’s body and left her screaming on the ground,” which is again graphic imagery to show the horror associated with the character.

Stevenson highlights the contrast between private desires and public behaviour. This open exploration of duality might be what made the book so popular with readers. In some ways, the novel could be read as a cautionary tale. Possibly Stevenson wanted his readers to better appreciate the complexity (and dangers) of unchecked human nature.

Crime

The story is set against a backdrop of suspicion, where Stevenson uses pathetic fallacy – often “fog” – to create a close, heavy and tense atmosphere. For example, “a fog rolled over the city.” Arguably, the fog could symbolise a lack of visibility or a place to hide, which might represent the fear people had of the “unknown.” As London grew in the Victorian era, so did poverty and crime.

The novella also shows how a person’s secrets could be used to ruin them at the time. This is evident when Enfield threatens to expose the truth and “make [Jekyll/Hyde’s] name stink from one end of London to the other.” This metaphor is used to create tension, and show how the doctor could be tarnished right across London for his criminality as Hyde. “Stink” also suggests how the damage of a reputation could ‘linger,’ and also has connotations of something disgusting.

Science

The novel serves as a commentary on the power of science, and its potential ethical pitfalls. The Industrial Revolution caused rapid scientific progress. This both excited and frightened people of the era, especially with Darwinism and evolution haunting society at the time.

Enfield describes Jekyll’s work as “scientific balderdash” showing disregard for more mystical, ‘secretive’ science. Stevenson does not provide much information or reference to how Dr Jekyll created Mr Hyde. We learn that he “added one of the powders,” which hints at spells or witchcraft rather than a more trusted, formulaic science.

The narrative asks readers to examine accountability and responsibility regarding ‘new and experimental’ science, especially as Jekyll loses control over Hyde.

Friendship

One of the key friendships in the novel is between Jekyll and Utterson, where Stevenson presents how complicated – and fragile – relationships can be. Jekyll’s pursuits strain the friendship, especially as he struggles to hide his dual identity from Utterson.

During a private conversation in chapter three, Jekyll tells Utterson:

“I believe you fully; I would trust you before any man alive…I can be rid of Mr. Hyde. I give you my hand upon that.”

This structurally sets up a crucial question for the novella: will Jekyll really be able to get rid of Mr. Hyde? Readers increasingly witness that the answer is ‘no.’ In the end, the ‘creature’ is only defeated by Jekyll’s closest allies, Utterson and Poole.

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