‘Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde’ by Robert Louis Stevenson
The character of Mr Hyde
The intention of this page is to help students understand the nature of Mr Hyde and his purpose in the novel. I have tried to avoid going over the same ground that you will find in profiles on other sites and have provided links where possible; however, the quotes may be the same! In questions on character, you are expected to understand the character ‘as a person’, be able to analyse how Stevenson has used form, language and structure, and identify themes arising. Finally, a good student will discuss how the context has an impact on meaning: this is the context at the time of Stevenson writing or the reader’s response, at subsequent points in history up to the present (i.e. the contexts of production and reception).
Let us start with some language analysis. Hyde is described as an animal, a ‘creature’, with no higher human sensibilities and he is even ‘like a rat’. At various points in the novella, he gives a ‘screech of animal terror’, he ‘snarled’, he is said to ‘growl’ and he reacts by ‘hissing’; apart from this latter serpent/snake/Satan allusion, he is specifically compared to other primates, having ‘ape-like tricks’; and ‘ape-like spite’ and also being like a monkey’; his movement is fluid, having a’quick light way’ and he shows ‘great muscular activity’; furthermore he is hairy and ‘squat’.
These quotes, per se (i.e. on their own), also give the reader a distinct sense of Hyde being an early form of human and, perhaps, a result of that Darwinian process known as the survival of the fittest. Stevenson’s early readership would have been quick to see Hyde as a creature of ruthless humanity, which, alarmingly, progressively becomes stronger and more powerful.
Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of the Species’ was published in 1859. In the popular imagination, people felt that we had descended from apes (rather than the actual theory our descending from common ancestors). Violent, selfish behaviour was attributed to this aspect of our makeup. Hyde therefore at first appears to be a throwback to our cave-dwelling ‘troglodyte’ ancestors with a ‘savage laugh’. Even though Edgar Alan Poe, in ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’, predated Stevenson by some forty-five years with a murder committed by an orangutan in Paris, the streets of London being traversed by a such a ‘creature’ and the murder of an upright Member of Parliament, Sir Danvers Carew, remained a terrifying prospect – and one that continues to chill the blood. Note the icy/cold imagery when Lanyon declares in his written account that he felt and ‘icy pang along my blood’ when Hyde touched him and Poole felt in his ‘marrow kind of cold and thin’ just by talking to him.
‘On the Origin of the Species’ gave scientific credence to the view that people are both good and evil: this dualism was considered, by some, to be innate (i.e. in us from the beginning) because we had been scientifically proven to be animal in origin. The philosophy of dualism actually goes back to Greek times in the form of ‘body’ and ‘soul’. Stevenson tapped into the popular consciousness by describing Hyde as, inter alia (i.e. among other things), a ‘creature’. He was not the first to do this by any means – for instance, in Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’, Jane wonders:
‘what creature was it…that uttered the voice, now of a mocking demon, and anon of a carrion seeking bird of prey?’
More terrifying yet, Hyde is variously described as a ‘child of hell’, ‘like satan’, ‘fiend’, having a ‘readiness to evil’ and being a ‘damned Juggernaut’. This is taken even further when he is said to be ‘not only hellish but inorganic’ i.e. not of living matter. For more on Hyde as evil, see my notes on chapter 1
As a matter of incidental interest, in ‘Jane Eyre’, Jane mistakenly thinks that Grace Poole is responsible for being the creature – only later does she discover that Grace is carer/nurse/guard of Bertha Mason (the mad woman in the attic). By also naming Dr Jekyll’s butler ‘Poole’, Stevenson is deliberately drawing on his readership’s literary experience of the demonic. Both Jane and Stevenson’s Poole fail to identify who is making the sounds they hear. Such inter-textuality is not intended to give the reader insight into the nature of the butler. The purpose of the allusion is more subtle: for instance, it leads us to look at the use of error to create mystery and the value of the servant as a structural device in suspense.
Stevenson has used the homonym Hyde/hide to suggest the hidden aspects of the otherwise well respected doctor: Hyde is very secretive and unpleasant and he represents something in all human beings that we would prefer not to acknowledge; this can be regarded as the ‘id’ of Freud’s analysis. Freud held that the human mind was the site of a constant battle among different impulses—the id (instinctual needs and desires), the ego (the conscious, rational mind), and the superego (the sense of conscience and morality). Individuals and society do not wish to acknowledge basic animal instincts; this approach to the text is important because contextual considerations deepen understanding.
Context can be briefly defined as:
(a) The context of Reception (context at the time of reading)
This can be summarised as those current views, ideas, attitudes and circumstances that people have at the time of reading. So a modern reader might understand Mr Hyde’s ‘moral insensibility’ better if s/he thinks of him as a jihadist, paedophile or Jimmy Saville. S/he might appreciate the gothic genre in the light of werewolf and Dracula films etc.
(b) Context of Production (context at the time of writing). It is harder to specify the influences on Stevenson in the 1880’s when he wrote his novella, ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. So, with that in mind….
(1) Perhaps the most obvious literary influence on Stevenson is the gothic genre. This page gives a brief outline of recognisable features of the gothic and suggestions on where the might appear in the text. You may have read writing that predates ‘Strange Case’ such as Poe short stories, ‘Jane Eyre’. You might also consider Poe’s ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841 (see above) and ‘The Moonstone in 1868 by Wilkie Collins which is both detective and epistolatory (letter) and with different narrators.
(2) You might look at the effect of Darwin on Victorian consciousness and religious belief at the time.
(3) You could look into class and gender attitudes in the nineteenth century.
(4) Current or well established theories on the nature of mankind e.g. Dualism which primarily deals with the notion of good and evil but it also appears in the ideologies of professional respectability and a male dominated society.
(5) In 2016, the biographer Jeremy Hodges, claims he has found the original real-life Hyde killer. Some Stevenson notes, (amazingly) found buried in a 35 volume of his work refer to the duality of a drinking companion, Eugene Chantrelle, in Edinburgh. Stevenson writes:
‘I should say, looking back from the unfair superior ground of subsequent knowledge that Chantrelle bore upon his brow the most open marks of criminality; or rather, I should say so if I had not met another man who was his exact counterpart in looks, and who was yet, by all that I could learn of him, a model of kindness and good conduct.’
It seems that the psychopathic Frenchman, who had abandoned his medical training, would be analysing Molière one night and committing murder the next! Stevenson attended every day of his trial and Hodges writes that the things the author learnt ‘would remain with him for life’. For Hodges, the most shocking factor ‘was the way in which a monster had been able to deceive everyone.’
Here are some further phrases from the text which could be useful quotes:
‘personal distaste’, detestable attributes’, ‘something wrong’, displeasing attributes’,
‘look so ugly’, ‘debility of constitution’, ‘abnormal and misbegotten’
‘strung to the pitch of murder lusting to inflict pain’
For more of my pages on ‘Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’, please hover your cursor over the Stevenson drop-down menu at the top of the page.
The Generation of Edward Hyde by Jay Bland
The Times 7 November, 2016
You are free:
- to Share — to copy, distribute and transmit the work
- to Remix — to adapt the work
Under the following conditions:
- Attribution — You must attribute the work in the manner specified, as above, by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work).
- Noncommercial — You may not use this work for commercial purposes.
With the understanding that:
- Waiver — Any of the above conditions can be waived if you get permission from the copyright holder.
- Public Domain — Where the work or any of its elements is in the public domain under applicable law, that status is in no way affected by the license.
- Other Rights — In no way are any of the following rights affected by the license:
- Notice — For any reuse or distribution, you must make clear to others the license terms of this work. The best way to do this is with a link to this web page.