good and evil Jekyll and hyde summary analysis quotes

The problem of good and evil in ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’

Previously, I wrote a post analysing the theme of duality in Robert Louis Stevenson’s much loved The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde. And one of the most obvious dualities in the novella is good versus evil.

In this post, however, I’m arguing that the line between this moral binary isn’t as clear as we think, and that despite popular interpretation, Jekyll and Hyde don’t each embody ‘good’ and ‘evil’ as separate characters, but are instead a conflated representation of these warring instincts within human nature. 

Is it ‘Jekyll and Hyde’? Or ‘Jekyll-Hyde’, or ‘Jekyllhyde’?

From a psychiatric standpoint, the case of Jekyll and Hyde isn’t so strange – it’s a classic example of schizophrenia, or ‘split personality’.

Ireland Horror Movies GIF by ALTER – The Best Horror Films

But an overly clinical diagnosis blinds us to the literary (and thus, metaphorical) essence of Stevenson’s story:

At the heart of humanity lies not a ‘split’, but a knot, one which binds good and evil, often amalgamating them to the extent where the contours of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are no longer distinctly discernible.

For children, such moral categories can be useful as a framework to understand the world, but adults – or mature people, to be exact – know that for every gram of goodness we have, we ‘make it up’ with an equal pinch of evil, and that we all carry around our own Jekyll and Hyde masks. 

That Jekyll struggles to come to terms with this complexity of human nature is the cause of his tragedy. Beyond illustrating the dangers of Faustian overambition (like Doctor Faust, Dr Jekyll’s desire for superhuman knowledge and progress leads to catastrophic ends), Stevenson presents the consequences of not recognising in time that “man is not truly one, but truly two”, or to be more exact, that ‘man is truly many-in-one’, or as Jekyll puts it, a “polity of multifarious, incongruous and independent denizens”.

Our goodness and evil are constantly at work and at war with each other, and how we decide to shape our character is largely determined by how well we symphonise and synergise these opposing forces within us. 

In the following sections, then, let’s close read two specific moments towards the end of the novella, where Stevenson presents good and evil as conflated, rather than distinct, entities. 

The paradox of man: “Even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both”

Jekyll and hyde even if I could rightly be said to be either it was only because I was radically both

At the start of the final chapter, ‘Henry Jekyll’s Full Statement of the Case’, we’re given the backstory to Jekyll’s bizarre ambitions. 

Since his youth, he had been fascinated by the “profound duplicity of life”. Specifically, Jekyll couldn’t bring himself to reconcile the fact that virtues would exist alongside vices, and that people are by nature both good and evil.

Ironically, he is himself a case in point, as his intellectual curiosity – a virtue per se, quickly becomes a moral vice as he pursues it to extreme ends with his metamorphosis into Hyde. For a man so highly intelligent, Jekyll is unable to grasp that human nature does not come in neat boxes, and that humans often behave in contradictory ways. 

This notion of contradiction lies at the heart of paradox, which is borne out in the quotation below, as Jekyll reflects – 

I for my part, from the nature of my life, advanced infallibly in one direction and in one direction only. It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognize the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both…

In the paradoxical statement “even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both”, “either” and “both” point to our moral and immoral selves. So, if we are capable of being moral or immoral, then that’s because we are both moral and immoral characters. Just as there are no absolute saints, so there are no pure Satans in this world. 

Fredric March Horror Classics GIF by Turner Classic Movies

Another duality that’s shown to be paradoxical is between Jekyll’s intellectual and moral life: a highly intelligent doctor – a man who cures fellow man – also happens to be incredibly naive about the essence of humanity.

As a learned doctor (“the nature of my life”), he’s not had any issues dealing with bookish and professional knowledge, but as a living and breathing human being (“in my own person”), he struggles with the blurriness of those fine lines that intersect to weave man’s desires and compulsions, which at points seem to threaten the stability of one’s carefully curated persona.

His frustration over this is evident in the emotive diction below (highlighted words express the intensity of his feelings):

It was the curse of mankind that these incongruous faggots were thus bound together – that in the agonized womb of consciousness, these polar twins should be continuously struggling. How, then, were they dissociated?

Despite the reference to good and evil as “incongruous faggots”, the oxymoron of “these polar twins” betrays a greater truth – as conceptually polarised as these instincts may seem, they are in fact two sides of the same coin, or metaphorically speaking: “twins”. 

The lexical paradox in “the thorough and primitive duality of man” is also worth noting: if something is thorough – complete with regard to every detail, then how can it also be primitive – undeveloped and raw?

A possible interpretation is that our duality seeps through every part of us, which makes it ‘thorough’, and this is an inherent, fundamental fact of human nature, which renders it ‘primitive’.

Basically, being good and bad or moral and immoral at the same time is part of our born constitution, which is why Jekyll’s project – separating these inevitably intertwined elements from each other – ends up being a massive failure. 

The inescapability of ourselves: “The problem of my conduct was solved.” 

Jekyll and hyde the problem of my conduct was solved

As Jekyll relates his (or Hyde’s) murder of Sir Danvers Carew, he reveals what appears to be a bizarre motive: he was compelled to kill someone so that he would be forever purged of this same desire to kill another.

In his mind, the murder was supposed to be a once-and-for-all catharsis – the final nail in the coffin for Jekyll’s manifestation of evil through Hyde, as it were. After the brutal murder, Hyde rushes back to the house for the transforming potion – 

Hyde had a song upon his lips as he compounded the draught, and as he drank it, pledged the dead man. The pangs of transformation had not done tearing him, before Henry Jekyll, with streaming tears of gratitude and remorse, had fallen upon his knees and lifted his clasped hands to God. 

What’s significant about this scene is the overlap of Hyde and Jekyll’s conscience at the point where one ‘man’ transforms into the other. The emphasis of “… had not done tearing him, before…” shows the thin line between a mind saturated with absolute evil and a soul racked with guilt, once again suggesting that good and evil aren’t so much polar opposites but are indeed, to use the earlier phrase, “polar twins”.

Of course, Jekyll and Hyde are also ‘twins’, and a pair that’s born of unnatural, diabolical origins. 

It baffles the mind (even Jekyll’s) to think that someone as ugly, decrepit and evil as Hyde would ever be associated with the respectable, upright and decent doctor, but Stevenson’s point is precisely this: spots of evil lurk behind whatever seems good, and traces of good aren’t totally absent from even the most seemingly evil person. 

The pathos that surrounds Jekyll heightens as his moral naivete is exposed through the dramatic irony of his momentary relief – 

As the acuteness of this remorse began to die away, it was succeeded by a sense of joy. The problem of my conduct was solved. Hyde was thenceforth impossible; whether I would or not, I was now confined to the better part of my existence; and O, how I rejoiced to think it! 

We know, of course, from Hyde’s (and thus Jekyll’s) death in the previous chapter that this “sense of joy” is short-lived. But now that we’re given true insight into Jekyll’s motives behind his monstrous experiment, our response to him also becomes more complicated – perhaps even more sympathetic, as we see the supposedly ‘good’, albeit misguided, intentions which underpin his evil act. 

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1887 play) - Wikiwand

Not unlike the way Jekyll has fooled his society, Stevenson’s use of logical syntax and causal diction here (“as… it was succeeded”, “The problem… was solved”, “thenceforth impossible”) reinforces Jekyll’s desire to rationalize what’s fundamentally irrational and erroneous.

Contrary to the Christological narrative, in which Adam and Eve were first good and then evil, human nature does not house good and evil as separate instincts which can be activated or deactivated at will – and the Jekyll and Hyde tale shows us that no amount of scientific advancement can ever change this. 

Or watch me explain in the video below!

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