Robert Mighall describes ‘The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde’ as ‘more than just a shilling shocker’. It explores in depth the hypocritical society of the Victorian era, and emphasises the darkness that lies behind the respectable facade. Darwin’s theories, and other scientific breakthroughs meant that many religious beliefs were being eroded, which led to spiritual uncertainty. Blackmail and sexuality were a big part of many lives at the time, but were kept secret, as people were ‘ordinary secret sinners’. Religion pervaded all aspects of Victorian society, and many Victorians were wary of scientific experiments.
Change, rather than stability became the norm, and experiments it was feared, would have strange and dangerous outcomes. Stevenson played with this idea in the novel. The creation of Hyde not only makes the reader question the nature of man, but also the question of science against religion. If such scientific breakthroughs weren’t being made, would the dark, sinister side of man ever emerge? The novel sees Jekyll returning to religion at the end; ‘God knows, I am careless’, showing perhaps that an can’t exist without God. Hyde lacks a conscience, which Christianity teaches every human has.
Jekyll detaches himself not only from Hyde, but Jekyll as well by talking in the third person; ‘The powers of Hyde seemed to have grown with the sickliness of Jekyll’. Stevenson explores in depth the duality of human nature. Jekyll says that ‘man is not truly one but truly two’, but took it upon himself to separate the two sides of man through Scientific experiments, and create a being that represented his evil self, his ‘lower element’. This shows how behind the respectable exterior of the new Victorian middle classes, there was a more sinister, evil world that had to be hidden.
Stevenson then goes on to hint that this case was not unique; ‘as he talks about the ‘primitive duality of man’ which suggests there is a sinister side to even the most ‘respectable’ people. This is emphasised by the contrast in the two characters. While Jekyll is full of ‘warm affection’ and ‘kindness’, Hyde is likened to an animal; an ‘ape-like’ creature, ‘monstrous’ and ‘foul’, partly because there was a demand to adhere to strict ‘standards’ of behaviour, something which Hyde clearly doesn’t do.
The suppression of Jekyll’s natural instincts, when he refused to let Hyde out shows the danger this can cause, as Hyde ‘came out roaring’. The setting of the book isn’t ‘typical’ for a book of this genre. Instead of far away, the story takes place in London. Stevenson also personifies the city to add character, and to carry on the theme of duality as there is a distinct rich and poor side of London, which could also represent good and evil. Hypocrisy is a dominant theme in the novel.
Jekyll distanced himself from Hyde, condemning his actions; ‘It was Hyde after all, and Hyde alone, who was guilty’. He fails to admit that Hyde was in fact part of himself, and this, in my opinion, is the main device Stevenson uses to critique Victorian society; Jekyll is able to turn a blind eye to his own actions, just as the public would ignore suffering, and the corruption that was right in front of them. The hierarchy meant that the upper classes got away with a lot more, whereas the middle classes had to suppress so called ‘sins’, to set an example to the lower classes.
Perhaps Jekyll saw himself as above admitting his darker side, and, like much of the society at the time, pretended it wasn’t there. Another example of hypocrisy is when Jekyll stops taking the potion, suggesting that he wants to become an ‘ordinary secret sinner’, like the rest of society. This could imply that sinning is justified, if done in secret; stressing the immorality of the Victorian people. The idea of an ‘ordinary secret sinner’ is touched on many times throughout the novel, not just with Jekyll.
It is strongly suggested that Enfield and Carew have their own unsolved secrets. Carew was an ‘aged and beautiful gentleman’, yet walking through an alley at night. The ambiguous actions of the central ‘respectable’ characters, in my opinion, acts as a symbol for the higher classes of Victorian society. The constant fear of blackmail at the time added to the instability at the time, and from this we can see how different the reactions to the novel would be by a reader today, as we are not in a constant fear of secrecy and sin; it is expressed more openly.
The policeman in chapter 4 is another example. His ‘professional ambition’ caused him to think more about the rewards and influence on his reputation solving a murder would have, rather than closure for people who cared. Reputation is very important in the novel, with ‘upright’ characters such as Enfield and Utterson avoiding gossip at all costs. For example when Utterson first suspects Jekyll of being blackmailed, and then sheltering Hyde from the police, he didn’t report it, in fear of damage to his friends reputation.
This shows, again, how important it was to hide the often sordid undersides of peoples respectable facades. Victorian readers would have had a very different reaction than people today. In contrast to our much more open society, it would have got people thinking about what people got up to, and possibly question themselves as ‘secret sinners’. Some critics say that choosing the gothic genre to critique Victorian society is a strange choice, however I think that Stevenson had a number of clear reasons for this. He adapted it to suit his own ends, as it is by no means a ‘typical’ gothic novel.
He has used gothic conventions in a modern setting, and it is debatable whether Jekyll is the typical gothic protagonist; arrogant and egotistical. In some cases he certainly seems this way. He says he can ‘be rid of Hyde (whenever I choose)’. However I think he is more a tragic hero, influenced by science, and possibly trying to break free from the tight binds of Victorian society. His downfall was merely an error in judgement, not realising it wouldn’t be straightforward splitting up the compound that is the human body.
He stretched the expected standards of behaviour, and challenged natural instincts. Victorian society was still set in its ways, despite advances in technology and industrialisation. Routine was important, as emphasised by Utterson in chapter 4 who ‘hurried his breakfast’ before visiting a ‘serious’ crime scene. Appearance and reality were a common contrast, but this analogy was tested in the novel as Jekyll and Hyde’s appearance seemed to reflect their characters.
Robert Mighall talks of an ‘erotic element in Jekyll and Hyde’s activities’, and to an extent I think he is right. There is an undercurrent of sexuality throughout the novel. It is one of the most natural things in a human, yet is suppressed and driven underground. Many hints in the novel suggest that the misdeeds of Jekyll and Hyde are sexual in nature. One example is when Hyde tramples a young girl and then pays off her family. Child prostitution was rampant in Victorian London, and there may be a suggestion of it here.
Also, the main characters in the novel are bachelors, and one might interpret the ‘depravity’ mentioned in the text as acts of hidden homosexuality. Late Victorian literature contains many subtle hints to acts of socially unaccepted sexual behaviour, often referring to or symbolizing homosexual activities. Oscar Wilde’s novel ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ is one example of Victorian literature’s concern and anxiety regarding sexual orientation. Stevenson uses this to entwine his novel with the gothic; as secrecy was a common theme throughout Gothic novels.
It was also feared at the time that respectable people would get a fatal illness if they masturbated, and Utterson at first thought this was the case with Jekyll, an ‘unnameable malformation’. Stevenson critiques Victorian society by showing the consequences of suppressing natural urges; Hyde ‘came out roaring’ after being kept hidden away by Jekyll. In conclusion, Stevenson critiques Victorian society using a number of different devices. By symbolising occurrences that happened in everyday life, he was able to show what, in his view, were the consequences of suppressing natural urges.
I think he used Jekyll as a symbol for ‘normal’ people. Jekyll shows initial delight whenever he becomes Hyde, and no matter how appalling the crimes Hyde commits, Jekyll never feels guilty enough to refrain from making the transformation again as soon as he feels the urge. “Henry Jekyll stood at times aghast before the acts of Edward Hyde,” Jekyll writes, “but the situation was apart from ordinary laws’ But such statements seem little more than an absurd attempt at self-justification Jekyll brings Hyde into being, knowing full well that he embodies pure evil.
Jekyll therefore bears responsibility for Hyde’s actions. His willingness to convince himself otherwise suggests that the darker half of the man has the upper hand, even when he is Jekyll and not Hyde. Readers responses would be very different now to then. While we may judge Jekyll, Victorian readers may not have blamed him for wanting to break free from ‘standard’ conventions.