Reviving the classics: Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

White and black, good and evil, two sides of the same coin…

I believe we all know this story. Or do we just think we do?

Spoilers!!!

Stevenson’s novella follows Mr Utterson, a respectful lawyer, as he investigates the figure of a mysterious Edward Hyde, whose bad reputation was based on his cruel treatment of a little girl that ran into him. He soon discovers that the child’s family was compensated by his friend, Doctor Henry Jekyll. Utterson suspects that the doctor is blackmailed and manipulated by Hyde, who has access to Jekyll’s house and is supposed to inherit all of his properties. As Hyde’s violence culminates in murder, Utterson is desperate to discover the true relationship between the men. Only after Jekyll’s death, we find out the truth- they are one and the same person…

Today, everyone knows the true relationship between Jekyll and Hyde, but I believe that this resolution had to be a real shock for the Victorians. A respected doctor, a scientist, chooses to escape into experimentation to split his personality and develop a dark alter ego that could act on most basic impulses and realise all his repressed dreams without a shadow of remorse or damage to the doctor’s reputation. The idea seems fascinating even right now.

The story is often analysed in relation to the Freudian idea of the uncanny used in psychology to describe the encounter with something strangely familiar that unconsciously brings to the surface repressed impulses and infantile beliefs. This reading gives a deeper meaning to Mr Hyde’s characterisation, especially at the novella’s beginning. His first appearance is an eye-witness relation of the incident with the child. Mr Enfield, Utterson’s relative, described the accident as ‘hellish to see. It wasn’t like a man; it was like some damned Juggernaut.’[1] He then relates the reaction of the crowd at the scene: ‘I had taken a loathing to my gentleman at first sight. So had the child’s family, which was only natural. […] I saw that Sawbones turn sick and white with the desire to kill him. I knew what was in his mind, just as he knew what was in mine; and the killing being out of question, we did the next best. We told the man we could and would make such a scandal out of this, as should make his name stink from one end of London to the other.’[2] This perfectly portrays the extremity of adverse reactions to Hyde caused probably by the fact that he personifies the uncanny while enacting Jekyll’s repressed fantasies. He seems familiar, as a man, but a strange quality about him sets him apart from others. He manifests a part of the doctor’s consciousness that acts on wildest impulses without a moral compass. 

I believe that this post shows just a fracture of what really can be found in good literature under the scrutinising analysis. Different meanings emerge when we read and reread stories that we seem to know well. It is a pleasure worth the effort.

  [1] Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, in Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Tales, ed. by Roger Luckhurst (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 1-66 (p. 7).

[2] Stevenson, p. 7.

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