In the age of social media, the line between our public and private selves has never been narrower.
Unless you’re someone with no Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, Tik Tok or LinkedIn account with absolutely no interest in the publicisation of personal opinions or your daily life, it’s hard not to be dragged into the game of ‘persona creation’.
The life anyone curates in Instagram tiles is almost never representative of their reality, but despite our awareness of the public-private chasm in identity, we continue to be avid consumers of glossified, repackaged and sanitised lives.
This instinct to sever our private from our public self, however, is nothing new. One of the most iconic expressions of this is Robert Louis Stevenson’s publication of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1886, a novella which exposes the gap between outward respectability and inward decay.
Who is Robert Louis Stevenson?
To understand the genesis of Stevenson’s ‘tale of two identities’, some biographical insight is necessary.
Born in 1850 in Edinburgh, Stevenson was plagued by chronic illness as a child, and spent most of his youth bound to his bed. Stevenson’s physical paralysis, however, supercharged his imagination for the limits of the human body.
Coupled with his avid interest in Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer’s works on evolution and eugenics, such early conditions laid the foundation for Jekyll and Hyde’s narrative of anatomical metamorphosis. The notion of ‘survival of the fittest’ was part of the cultural dialogue then, and raised the dangerous but alluring question of whether man can ever accelerate the pace of his own evolutionary progress through scientific advancement.
But there remains a moral enigma: as we become ‘different’ versions of our bodily selves, would we remain the same moral being, subject to the checks of social and legal constraints? When left alone, is the scientifically ‘superior’ man essentially good, or absolutely evil?
If Jekyll and Hyde is anything to go by, then it seems that Stevenson wasn’t too optimistic about man’s moral discipline. Hyde is no Frankenstein, who, despite also being a sentient invention, at least feels a sense of remorse over his violent urges.
Not so for the unfeeling Hyde. In Stevenson’s novella, a respectable doctor – Dr Jekyll, invents a concoction which allows him to transform into a ‘doppleganger’ – Mr Hyde. Hyde is the very definition of evil, as he goes around murdering innocent people (including a young girl and an elderly member of Parliament, Sir Danvers Carew), only to get away every time because of his ability to shapeshift back into Jekyll.
This fascination with duality also stemmed from Stevenson’s awareness of mid-19th century Edinburgh’s polarised social topography, as the respectable and the low life each dominated one half of the city.
When the notorious Whitechapel Murders broke out in 1888 in London, Jekyll and Hyde was enjoying a surge of popularity from the actor-manager Richard Mansfield’s stage adaptation of the novella, but when the parallels between Hyde and ‘Jack the Ripper’ – the moniker for the unidentified serial killer of the Whitechapel Murders – became too uncannily close for comfort, Mansfield had to shut down the production for fear of his own reputation.
By then, however, the imprint of Jekyll-cum-Hyde was already seared in the minds of the English public.
Despite the obvious association of Hyde with evil, Hyde is just a dummy outlet for Jekyll’s moral conflict. After all, if you could do anything you wanted without anyone knowing, would you still do the right thing, or give in to your truest desires? Underneath it all lies the question of whether absolute power – whether it be over oneself or others – corrupts absolutely.
In fact, a central idea that surrounds the duality theme in Jekyll and Hyde is this: the more respectable an image we construct for ourselves on the outside, the greater the urge for decay and debauchery within.
Perhaps there’s something about constantly showing up as a ‘good person’ that repels the subconscious, and this is borne out time and again in the news we read – why else do we see high-ranking politicians signing up for escort services on Ashley Madison, Catholic priests molesting young altar boys, or corporate CEOs and university professors being complicit in sex trafficking scandals?
In this post, then, let’s close read two moments from the beginning and the end of the novella to explore how Stevenson conveys the dangers and temptations of duality.
Reading the beginning of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: “deformity without any nameable malformation”
Let’s begin with the epigraph, which Stevenson addresses to his cousin and childhood friend, Katherine de Mattos.
It’s ill to loose the bands that God decreed to bind;
Still will we be the children of the heather and the wind.
Far away from home, O it’s still for you and me
That the broom is blowing bonnie in the north contrite.
The first line encapsulates the duality theme: what are the “bands” that God had bound in us?
These are the bands of mortal and moral obligation we’ve inherited from Adam and Eve – that by dint of existence, we carry the ancestral blot of the Original Sin and atone for it throughout the course of our lives. This is God’s “decree” – his command – for us, and so any attempt to “loosen” this band, to ‘liberate’ ourselves from this twin burden of good and evil, would be perceived in the Christological framework as a transgressive act.
In Strange Case, Dr Jekyll’s externalisation of his evil onto a separate being (Mr Hyde) is precisely an example of this. By seeking to triumph over religion with science, Jekyll forgets that in the orbit of Christian society, “we [are] the children of the heather and the wind”, bound eternally to predetermined rules of existence.
Early on in the novel, Stevenson establishes a clear relation between Hyde and the Devil. The man is a walking receptacle of all things evil, whether outward (appearance) or inward (personality). When Mr Utterson, the lawyer protagonist from whose perspective we see the events, reflects upon Mr Hyde’s appearance, he can’t quite put his finger on just what makes the man so repulsive, perhaps because Hyde’s physiognomy extends beyond the realm of the truly human –
Mr Hyde was pale and dwarfish, he gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation, he had a displeasing smile, he had borne himself to the lawyer with a sort of murderous mixture of timidity and boldness, and he spoke with a husky, whispering and somewhat broken voice; all these were points against him, but not all of these together could explain the hitherto unknown disgust, loathing and fear with which Mr Utterson regarded him.
Many readers are quick to assume that the duality in Strange Case is only that between Jekyll – ‘the good half’, and Hyde – ‘the bad half’. But even within these characters themselves there exist endemic dichotomies. Notice that central to Hyde’s extreme ugliness, there lies a series of dualities: he smiles, but is cold and unfriendly; he is timid, and yet also bold and threatening.
Indeed, the visceral reaction he evokes from Utterson is also dual, characterised at once by “loathing and fear”. So conflicted is his response that Utterson is forced to ponder on the root of his disgust, for he is himself unsure –
“There must be something else,” said the perplexed gentleman. “There is something more, if I could find a name for it. God bless me, the man seems hardly human! Something troglodytic, shall we say? Or can it be the old story of Dr Fell? Or is it the mere radiance of a foul soul that thus transpires through, and transfigures, its clay continent? The last, I think; for O my poor old Harry Jekyll, if ever I read Satan’s signature upon a face, it is on that of your new friend.”
As Utterson considers the various reasons for his distaste towards Hyde, he proposes the possibility of Hyde both as a pre-human and a non-human.
If he is “something troglodytic” (caveman-like), then he’d be closer to the primitives and apes; on the other hand, if he’s “a foul soul that… transfigures its clay continent” (its mortal shell), then he’d bear greater resemblance to a monstrous creature. (The lawyer also alludes to the nursery rhyme of Dr Fell, which conveys the inexplicable hatred of a student for his college dean, to reflect on whether his feelings towards Hyde are a result of his own biases).
The conflation of ape-likeness and demon-likeness suggests the notion of man being born base, but instead of attempting to ‘remove’ this baseness from our souls, Hyde’s case shows us that it’s perhaps better to keep the evil within closer to ourselves, because only by doing so can we constantly manage our wayward desires with our parallel sense of morality.
Similar to the dual nature that resides in Hyde, Jekyll’s decency is marked by an eerie split between “kindness” and “blackness”.
At the start of Chapter 3 – ‘Dr Jekyll was quite at ease’, the doctor is portrayed as the exemplar of the Victorian gentleman – respectable, generous and cordial –
Dr Jekyll… [was] a large, well-made, smooth-faced man of fifty, with something of a slyish cast perhaps, but every mark of capacity and kindness – you could see by his looks that he cherished for Mr Utterson a sincere and warm affection.
Buried among the innocuous descriptions is the seemingly throwaway parenthetical clause – “with something of a slyish cast perhaps”. To describe someone as “sly” is to say that he’s deceitful, and even though the syntax here makes this appear like an offhand remark, it is a harbinger for the deeper, darker instincts that will overtake Jekyll’s consciousness later in the narrative.
Even the ostensibly positive traits, upon closer scrutiny, present Jekyll in an oddly stilted, artificial light.
Lexical choices such as “well-made”, “smooth-faced”, “cast” etc. make the man seem more like a wax figure than an actual human, while the superlative in “every mark of capacity and kindness” creates an all-too-perfect character who will soon be revealed in his more sinister reality.
Reading the end of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: “man is not truly one, but truly two”
In the final chapter of the novella, titled ‘Henry Jekyll’s Full Statement of the Case’, we find out the truth about Jekyll’s motives behind the creation of Hyde.
It’s not explicitly stated, but when Jekyll tells us that he had “concealed [his] pleasures” from a young age, there’s the implication that indulging in illicit (and likely sexual) desires drove him to reflect on man’s “duplicity”. Despite putting up a successful front of moral blotlessness and social respectability, Jekyll is increasingly agonised by the warring urges within –
Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures; and that when I reached years of reflection, and began to look round me and take stock of my progress and position in the world, I stood already committed to a profound duplicity of life.
This “profound duplicity of life” isn’t the ‘good vs evil’ divide which Jekyll and Hyde represent at large, but the split between appearance and reality – the public persona and the private soul.
The more faultless Jekyll appears to others, the more miserable he feels – largely because he understands (and cannot stand) the social expectation for everyone to ‘split’, as it were, their projected and true selves.
Ironically, then, the literal body split that Jekyll effects between himself and Hyde is a result of his burning need to close this distance between the fake and the real of human identity. And this is borne out most strikingly in the rush of paradoxical statements below –
Though so profound a double-dealer, I was in no sense a hypocrite; both sides of me were in dead earnest; I was no more myself when I laid aside restraint and plunged in shame, than when I laboured, in the eye of day, at the furtherance of knowledge or the relief of sorrow and suffering. […] With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two. I say two, because the state of my own knowledge does not pass beyond that point.
“I was in no sense a hypocrite”: the idea here is that we harbour both good and evil desires, which in and of itself is natural, and no bad thing.
The moral argument that Jekyll follows up with, however, is that ‘earnestness’ in being both good and bad is preferable to being just good (or just bad), because man can never be just “one” part of himself. In fact, Jekyll concedes that there may be more sides to ourselves than just “two” (moral and immoral), but he is constrained by the limits of his knowledge to settle for a dichotomous model of human nature.
This seems almost like an invitation for the reader to pursue “beyond that point”, and to find out if a third, or indeed fourth, dimension to man exists, notwithstanding the obvious disaster that such transgressive curiosity has engendered for himself.
But scientific experimentation per se is not the cause of tragedy; rather, it is the ill motives spawned out of ambition and pride that lead to chaos.
Ugly and repulsive as Hyde may look on the outside, his decision to murder innocents and to dispense with all sense of morality isn’t an immediate consequence of the drug Jekyll took to transform himself. Instead, it was the inner evil that this chemical transformation had awaken in Jekyll, who realises upon taking on his ‘new’ identity that he is now beyond the grasp of law –
That night I had come to the fatal cross roads. Had I approached my discovery in a more noble spirit, had I risked the experiment while under the empire of generous or pious aspirations, all must have been otherwise, and from these agonies of death and birth, I had come forth an angel instead of a fiend. The drug had no discriminating action; it was neither diabolical nor divine; it but shook the doors of the prisonhouse of my disposition; and like the captives of Philippi, that which stood within ran forth. At that time my virtue slumbered; my evil, kept awake by ambition, was alert and swift to seize the occasion; and the thing that was projected was Edward Hyde. Hence, although I had now two characters as well as two appearances, one was wholly evil, and the other was still the old Henry Jekyll, that incongruous compound of whose reformation and improvement I had already learned to despair. The movement was thus wholly toward the worse.
Notice the many ‘dualities’ presented in this section: “these agonies of death and birth”, “an angel instead of a fiend”, “neither diabolical nor divine”, “my virtue slumbered; my evil, kept awake by ambition”, “two characters as well as two appearances”.
But the point of presenting these polarities isn’t in highlighting that there are such existential and moral tensions within man (this is granted), but in showing Jekyll’s constant struggle between polarising forces, and his very human failure to transcend beyond his humanness and to resist the darker, evil instincts, which ultimately compel him to choose the immoral persona between those “two characters and appearances” of “the old Henry Jekyll” and the “one [who] was wholly evil”.
The personification of “the drug… [having] shook the doors of the prisonhouse of my disposition”, his “virtue slumbered” and “evil, kept awake” also reinforces the notion that Jekyll’s humanity is overwhelmed at this point, shadowed by the looming forces of his moral conscience and its inevitable conclusion of doom.
Reading or studying other classic texts? Check out my other posts below!
- What is enumeration? Reading Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to find out
- What is foreshadowing? Reading Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray to find out
- Why you should read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (novel analysis)
- What F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men show us about the American Dream
- What makes Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman so tragic