Monday, 30 May 2011

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - Essay for Time Machine


Figure 1 – Poster for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde


In my essay I am going to look at the book The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Loius Stevenson.  Focusing on the scientific discoveries of the Enlightenment era that would have influenced the content of the book and the theories of persona and alter egos that have been richly documented in film and literature since its publication.

The Story

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a story by the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, reputedly written in three days following a dream in which two scenes of the story came to him, first published in 1886 in England and the following year in America.  Stevenson had long been intrigued by the idea of how to incorporate the interplay of good and evil into a story, Claire Harman in her introduction to The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde describes Stevenson’s fascination with duality in the Scottish criminal Deacon Brodie.

‘The story of Deacon Brodie held a particular fascination for Stevenson.  Brodie was a famous criminal in eighteenth century Edinburgh; by day an upright tradesman and town councillor, by night a common thief.  A carved cabinet made by Brodie was in the possession of Stevenson’s family and stood in his own bedroom, a constant reminder to an impressionable small boy of this doyen of the double life.’ (Introduction p.xi)  

The book was an  immediate success and one of Stevenson's best-selling works, the story lent itself to the stage and adaptations began within a year of its publication, it has gone on to inspire scores of major film and stage performances.  Its impact is such that it has become a part of the language, with the phrase ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ coming to mean a person who is vastly different in moral character from one situation to the next. The book has also been described as an accurate insight into the Victorian era with the hypocrisy of outward respectability and inward lust.

Synopsis of the Story

The story is about a London lawyer, Gabriel John Utterson who investigates strange occurrences between his friend, Dr Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde.  Hyde is seen doing despicable things, paying off one victim in gold and a cheque written by Dr Jekyll.  When questioned Jekyll tells them to think nothing of it but acts increasingly strangely.  It is when Hyde murders an MP by bludgeoning him with a cane that he disappears altogether leaving a note with Dr Jekyll apologising for all the trouble he has caused.

For a few months Jekyll seems more like his old self, engaging in charitable work, but then increasingly he becomes more and more of a recluse eventually shutting himself completely in his laboratory.  The one person to have seen him in this time, Dr. Hastie Lanyon, dies suffering from shock, leaving a letter only to be opened if Dr Jekyll dies or disappears.  His butler eventually goes for help as the voice in the laboratory does not even sound like Dr Jekyll anymore.

Utterson and the butler break into the laboratory to find the body of Mr Hyde in Dr Jekyll’s clothes and a letter from Dr Jekyll promising to explain all.

Lanyon’s letter describes how he saw Hyde transform back into Jekyll after taking potion, the shock of which caused his deterioration and death.

Jekyll describes his experiment with potions to create a good version of himself but the original ingredients were impure and created a creature of evil, Mr Hyde.  He describes how elated he felt initially with the moral freedom it gave him but soon the experiment got out of control.  He begins to transform spontaneously in his sleep, then in his waking hours, requiring more and more of the potion to become himself again. 

Eventually the potion began to run out and Jekyll was unable to find a necessary ingredient to make more. His ability to change back from Hyde into Jekyll slowly going, Jekyll writes that even as he composes his letter he knows that he will soon become Hyde permanently, and wonders if Hyde will face execution for his crimes or choose to kill himself.  He ends the letter (and the novel) saying "I bring the life of that unhappy Henry Jekyll to an end."


The various plays of the story soon became detached from the original plot with romantic interests added and the dual characters of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde ceasing to look physically different and only donning a wig or wild expression on transformation, thus removing a lot of the mystery as to whom Hyde could be.  Claire Harman gives us Stevenson’s reaction to an early stage adaptation he saw in America in 1887 which depicted Hyde as an unbridled womaniser.

‘Great Gods!’ he wrote to one John Paul Bocock, ‘a mere voluptuary.  There is no harm in voluptuaries…..The hypocrite let out the beast in Hyde….who is the essence of cruelty & malice & selfishness & cowardice, and these are the diabolical in man – not his poor wish to love a woman.’ (Harman Introduction p.viii)

Figure 2 - Richard Mansfield as Dr Jekyll from the stage production 1895

This story can be said to represent many things, the inner conflict of humanity's sense of good and evil, repression of homosexuality in the Victorian era, the mental condition of split personalities, an examination of the duality of human nature (that good and evil exists in all) and that the failure to accept this results in the evil being projected onto others.

William Ian Miller, author and Professor of Law, touches upon this dichotomy in his book ‘Faking It’ 

‘Don’t we wonder whether our self control is in two parts cowardice – the fear of getting caught and rendered ridiculous – and one small part virtue?’ (p.16) 

With this quote he examines the duality of our natures, we are good not because we are naturally good but because we are afraid to be bad.

The Enlightenment

The book draws from the great explorations into human nature, human ancestry and medical breakthroughs of the Enlightenment Era of the 18th Century. The Enlightenment was less a set of ideas than it was a set of values. At its core was a critical questioning of traditional institutions, customs, and morals, and a strong belief in rationality and science.  Popish superstitions and practices were rejected and long held beliefs in the right of rule that had been supported by the church were called into question. 

Describing this climate the philosopher and mathematician d’Alembert (1717-1783) wrote in 1758;

 “ ……..from the principles of the natural sciences to the foundations of revealed religion, from metaphysics to taste, from music to morals, from theological disputes to questions of trade, from the laws of princes to those of peoples: everything has been discussed, analyzed, or at least brought up” (Eitner:3)

Their ideal was a renewal of society through the application of scientific methods and a return to moral health.  This desire to start anew and the belief in the perfectibility of man were reflected in both theories and art.  In his famous essay "What is Enlightenment?"(1784), Philosopher Immanuel Kant described it simply as freedom to use one's own intelligence.  Developing simultaneously in Russia, Great Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy, the Netherlands and the colonies, the movement culminated in the French and American Revolutions.  Ideas were quickly spread due to the Industrial Revolution which allowed consumer goods to be produced in greater quantities at lower prices, encouraging the spread of books, pamphlets, newspapers and journals. 

Debate was encouraged at formal gatherings such as the Royal Society of London and the French Academies, debating societies that were open to all and also at informal coffee houses or penny universities as they were sometimes called.

Robert Boyle

One leading natural philosopher of the time whose ideas would have influenced the portrayal of Dr Jekyll was Robert Boyle.  He was a founder of the experimental world in which scientists now live and operate, best known for his Boyle's Law on the behaviour of gases, Boyle's method based knowledge on experimentation, which had to be witnessed to provide proper legitimacy.   He was helped by The Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge which he cofounded in 1660, who spread his experimental philosophy around Europe.  The society’s motto was ‘Nullus In Verba’ – Take Nobody's Word For It.

This extract from an article in The Telegraph by Richard Alleyne about the display of a wish list made by Robert Boyle in the Royal Society’s 350th anniversary exhibition details how far reaching Boyles ideas and the ideas of the Enlightenment were.    

‘Boyle's own handwritten "wish list" was found in his personal papers which had been donated at his death in 1691 to the Royal Society.

They range from the more obvious and sensible such as "The Prolongation of Life", the "Art of Flying" and "perpetual light" to the more bizarre – "Varnishes perfumable by Rubbing" – scratch and sniff – and "attaining gigantick dimensions" – supersizing.

Boyle also predicted Kevlar body armour with "making armor light and extremely hard" and unsinkable motor boats – "A ship to saile with All Winds, and a Ship not to be sunk".

Navigation at sea was predicted with the "practicable and certain way of finding Longitudes" as well as sleeping tablets, artificial stimulants and antidepressants with the "potent druggs (sic) to alter or Exalt Imagination, Waking, Memory and other functions and appease pain, procure innocent sleep, harmless dreams etc".’

Cataloguing Mankind

The interest in natural science extended not only to the elements of nature but to the elements of mankind.  Studies of skulls and phrenology resulted in categorizing and cataloging mankind. 

In 1857 Josiah Clark Nott and George Robert Gliddon wrote ‘Indigenous Races of the Earth’.  In the chapter The Cranial Characteristics of The Races Of Men they tried to show through scientific demonstration of measurements of the skull that a negro is as distinct from a Caucasian as a chimpanzee. 

They are often identified as proponents of “scientific racism” but their key concept was that of the permanence of types…..they more or less agreed in presenting man as a genus divided into types which in effect were species. They believed that each type was permanent and was suited to a particular zoological province of the earth’s surface, but they recognized that the actual races of the contemporary world were all mixed. They accounted for this by arguing that hybrids were ultimately sterile so that though because of human foolishness, races might deviate from their type, nature kept the deviation within bounds. (Theories of Race and Racism:p80)

Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859 putting into writing his theories of evolution from a common ancestry with natural selection as the basis for evolution.     He further explored this theory in 1871 with The Descent of Man.

Francis Galton an anthropologist, explorer, geographer, inventor, meteorologist, and statistician was gripped by The Origin of Species and devoted himself to exploring variation in human populations and its implications.  He wanted to know if ability was hereditary and explored the question of heredity and environment , nature versus nurture by devising a questionnaire for the Fellows of the Royal Society publishing his findings in his book (1874) English Men of Science: their nature and nurture.

Sigmund Freud

Building on these ideas and further exploring the workings of the mind in the areas of dreams and psychology was a contemporary of Robert Louis Stephenson’s, Sigmund Freud.  Freud’s theories would have had a deep impact on the formulation of the double character present in the book. 

In early Freudian Theory there was the conscious mind and the unconscious mind, the thoughts and desires banished to the unconcious mind motivate the behavior of the conscious mind. If someone banishes all evil to the unconscious mind in an attempt to be wholly and completely good, it can result in the development of a dark aspect to that person's character.
Later Freud expanded his theory to include three layers to personality;  The Id, an unconscious drive that wants instant gratification to instinctual basic drives, anger, hunger and lust; The Ego, present in both unconscious and conscious, an organised realistic part who seeks to please the Id’s drives in realistic ways that will benefit rather than bring grief; The Super-Ego, sometimes referred to as the conscience, the Super-Ego aims for perfection in ideals and spiritual goals and punishes misbehaviour with feelings of guilt.  All three are in a balancing act with the Id opposing the Super-Ego and the Ego trying to reconcile the two.

This idea of a layered personality resonates throughout Stevenson’s story with the potion supposed to turn Dr Jekyll into an idealised combination of the Ego and Super Ego, but infact creating merely a creature of the Id, Mr Hyde who eventually succeeds in defeating the others in the war for control.  

Yet the book has more subtleties than this straight comparison, it explores the roles that we play our ‘persona’ that we present to other people.  The Victorian era was full of hypocrisy and double standards which are explored in the book through the character of Richard Enfield a gentleman man about town who is by day accepted into polite society and by night trawls the brothels and opium dens.

Even the term polite society has double meaning, in the words of William Ian Miller taken from his book Faking It;

‘Politeness is the most acceptable form of hypocricy.  It means making a show of attention, veiling boredom, wearing a mask that manifests amiability or routine concern for their concerns.  It means making the interaction safe for others, with the expectation that they will return the favour.’ (Miller p.36) 

One person can have many personas that they choose to use throughout the day depending on whose company they are in.  Personally I am Fiona the mother, lover, student, entertainer, farmer, reluctant cook, daughter, sister, widow, gardener, stylist and granddaughter.  Erving Goffman discusses the roles we present to others as being actors on or offstage in his book ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’ and how we are hemmed in by who we pretend to be.

‘The individuals initial projection commits him to what he is proposing to be and requires him to drop all pretences of being other things’ (Goffman p.22)

Wiliam Ian Miller also discusses this in Faking It ‘We find ourselves at times feeling put upon to play an allegorical version of ourselves because that is what the company expects from us.  Time to be the me they invited me here to be, and that means, generally, they want an overstated version of the type, just to make sure that it is utterly recognizable and what they bargained for.’ (Miller p.123)

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are of course not the different faces of one person but a split personality of two separate identities and this has perhaps been the major influence of the book on modernity.


The use of an alter ego, one person presented as two different people has been fertile ground for story writers and film makers since The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was published. 

Figure 3 – Marvel Superheroes

The split personalities of comic superheroes have used this theme to great effect with characters such as Batman, Spiderman and Superman being one character in their everyday life and a superhuman character fighting crime when they are needed – a force for good – however they like Mr Hyde are forced to live a lonely existence feared as much as they are admired for their abilities.   

The story is most closely mirrored in The Hulk with a scientist, Dr Bannister, taking a potion to develop superhuman strength, the experiment goes wrong with Dr Bannister unable to control his metamorphosis into the Hulk every time he gets angry.  Unlike Mr Hyde the Hulk is not the embodiment of evil but rather a noble savage, a child like mentality with a superhuman body, Id not completely in control.

Alter egos have been used in reality to confound the labels that we have placed upon us and give us a chance to escape.  Artists have used alter egos to present radical work in this way they are able to make their statements without any fear of reprisals or critical analysis of their art work.

Figure 4 – Rrose Selavy picture taken by Man Ray

Marcel Duchamp submitted his Fountain, a radical new idea in 1917 of a ready made piece, under the name of R.Mutt to avoid the scandal that was created.  He also developed a female alter ego called Rrose Selavy in 1920 as a chance to not only change identity but change sex.  He used her to explore his interest in androgeny, make art and write explicit bon mots, spoonerisms and puns that were occasionally published. 

This freedom is also enjoyed by modern Street Artists such as Banksy whose real identity is unknown, allowing him to deal with an array of political and social themes outside the law.

The freedom that this gives us is commented upon by William Ian Miller ‘ Something about openly donning masks or posing as another frees the character from moral constraints.’ (Miller p.202)

Modern computer gamers also create their alter egos in the shape of Avatars, living their fantasies of perfection or domination in a fantasy environment.  This freedom is a double edged sword however, in cyberspace the creation of alter egos is not only used for creative urges but darker ones with paedophiles stalking their prey posing as a friend, a true reflection of the Mr Hyde that Stevenson wanted to portray.

This cynicism in action is discussed in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman.

‘At one extreme, one finds that the performer can be fully taken in by his own act; he can be sincerely convinced that the impression of reality which he stages is the real reality………At the other extreme we find that the performer may not be taken in at all by his own routine……Coupled with this, the performer may be moved to guide the conviction of his audience only as a means to other ends, having no ultimate concern in the conception they have of him or of the situation…..we may call him cynical….It should be understood that the cynic with all his professional disinvolvement, may obtain unprofessional pleasures from his masquerade, experiencing a kind of gleeful spiritual aggression from the fact that he can toy at will with something his audience must take seriously.’ (Goffman p.29)         


In conclusion with his book Stevenson tapped into our fascination for the difference between our true inner selves and our outward personas.  What would happen if we decided to let it all out?  Our modern potions of alcohol and soft drugs allow us to go wild every now and again with the safety net of redirecting the blame, ‘it wasn’t me it was the booze talking’.  What if there was no sobering up, no control, a frightening thought indeed. 

The novel contains no reference to God or Satan as being the source for good or evil, in the portrayal of Hyde he makes it clear that both good and evil are contained within ourselves.  This, as much as the scientific experimentation he explores, is a product of the philosophies of the Enlightenment, where reason rather than mysticism was used to answer questions of life.

The theme of the novel is repeated with endless comics and films rehashing the symbol of the alter ego to magnify both good and evil in superheroes or supervillains.  Its impact is such that it has become a part of the language with the phrase ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ meaning someone who is vastly different in moral character from one situation to the next.


  • Stevenson, R.L :The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Stories (Selected and Introduced by Claire Harman) (1992) Published by Everymans Library, London 
  • Miller, William, Ian: Faking It (2003) Cambridge University Press, New York
  • Cohen, Stanley & Taylor, Laurie: Escape Attempts – The Theory and Practice of Resistance to Everyday Life (1976) Penguin Books Ltd, London
  • Goffman, Erving: The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1990) Penguin Books Ltd, London.
  • Eitner, Lorenz: Neoclassicism and Romanticism 1750 – 1850 Vol 1 Enlightenment/Revolution, (1971) Prentice-Hall International Inc, London
  • Manco, Tristan: Street Sketchbook (2007) Thames and Hudson, London
  • Gombrich.E.H, The Story of Art, (1995), Phaidon Press Ltd, New York
  • Honour, Hugh: Neo-classicism (1991) Penguin Books, London
  • Dawn, Ades; Cox, Neil; Hopkins, David: Marcel Duchamp (1999) Thames and Hudson Ltd, London
  • Cassirer, Ernst: The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (1979) Princeton University Press, USA
  • Solomos, John; Back, Les: Theories of Race and Racism : Reader (1999) Routledge, USA (
  • Darwin, Charles: The Illustrated Origin of Species: Abridged and Introduced by Richard E. Leakey (1979) Faber and Faber Ltd, London
  • Mink, Janis: Duchamp (1995) Benedikt Taschen, Germany



(Accessed 1/5/11)


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