In many ways, Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is an early example of an Irony, a precursor of a type of literature that was to hold sway over much of the Twentieth Century. The idea that humanity is dual in nature, and that somehow a darker self waits to emerge from within the psychology of an otherwise sane man, is a powerful forerunner of the kind of psychological thriller of later decades, and the phrase ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ has gained such purchase on the imagination that it has entered the language. That fact that Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are one and the same person does not emerge fully until the last chapter, so that we confront the theory of a dual human nature explicitly only after having witnessed Hyde’s crimes and his ultimate eclipsing of Jekyll.
Jekyll’s assertion that ‘man is not truly one, but truly two’ draws some of its power from an earlier mediaeval conception that the human soul was the battleground for an ‘angel’ and a ‘demon’. Hoping to separate and purify each element, Jekyll succeeds only in bringing the dark Hyde into being: we are left wondering about the angelic part at the end. Instead of being reconciled to the notion that there must be an inner psychic balance, and that the primitive impulses embodied in Hyde, controlled or suppressed by culture, civilisation, law, and conscience, enable the purer and more intellectual side of a human personality to fourish, the story leaves things unexplained in typical Ironic fashion. Jekyll’s potion, far from clarifying man’s nature, appears to strip away a cultural veneer, exposing the beast beneath. Hyde is portrayed as animalistic, hairy and ugly; he operates from instinct rather than reason; but apart from a bestial brutality, he also appears to delight in crime, committing violent acts against innocents for no reason except the joy of it, quite unlike most animals. Hyde’s immorality seems intentional; Stevenson deepens the Irony of the novel by leaving us at the end to look within ourselves for answers.
The society in which the story takes place, Victorian London, promotes the importance of appearances, surfaces, facades; Utterson, the closest we get to a narrator until Jekyll’s letter at the end, works to safeguard Jekyll’s reputation but also to preserve the appearance of decorum, even as he senses a something sinister beneath it. But the details of this evil are rarely elucidated in the text: characters seem unable to describe the physical characteristics of Hyde, or they deliberately avoid certain conversations. Hyde’s sordid behaviour and secret evils are never made clear: if we accept that this is authorial craft at work, then we can interpret the silences as gaps, vacuums and voids into which Stevenson hopes to draw our own darkest thoughts. There is a suggestion that, in not confronting or naming the darkness, Victorian society permits it to flourish; there is also the possibility that Stevenson, by not going into too much detail, encourages an aura of mystery and allure.
Stevenson also effectively uses the setting of Victorian London with its dark streets and fog. Oddly enough, the infamous unidentified serial killer Jack the Ripper who was active in the largely impoverished areas in and around the Whitechapel district of London, did not appear until 1888, two years after the novella's publication -though a stage adaptation of Stevenson's story featuring Richard Mansfield in the title roles was playing at London's Lyceum theatre over part of the period that the series of murders associated with Jack the Ripper took place. No link was ever established, but the production opened two days before the murder of Martha Tabram, whom some believe to believe to have been the Ripper's first victim; and the show's run ended on Saturday, 29 September 1888, which was the same night as the murders of both Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes took place.
While London is conceived of as an urban crucible of this kind of demonic crime, perhaps for the first time in fiction, the awful link made in the story between a formerly external evil and a human being’s innermost unconscious opens the door to a whole genre of darker stories which reflect the increasingly materialistic and introverted cluster around them.
For more about fiction, visit the Inner Circle Writers' Group here.