Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde:
The Two-Faced Reflection of Victorian Gothic Literature
The Victorian age bears heavy and diverse marks of social, political, and cultural transformations. One of the most prominent reflections that found their way into the age’s literature is The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by R.L. Stevenson. As the Industrial Revolution resulted in bourgeoisie class expansion, the progressive impact of liberalism was nearly exhausted. Social hypocrisy and spiritual degeneration that followed are well portrayed in the Victorian Gothic literature. The value of Stevenson’s contribution is such that the very phrase "Jekyll and Hyde" has become a part of the modern language. Ever since first published in 1886, the novella strikes the readers’ imagination not only by the plot singularity but also by the stark social contrasts of the age. Based upon rather trivial contraposition, the traditional exploration of good and evil is extended beyond usual standards, enclosing two identities within the same person.
The prevailing scenery of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is rich on aging bourgeois doctors and lawyers. Stevenson communicates the feel of continuing decline in the very beginning of the novella: “Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary and yet somehow lovable” (Stevenson 11). The irony behind suggests that he may be lovable only by the same type of soulless characters. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Utterson with their similar notions of decency are somehow alienated even from each other. Both bourgeois gentlemen seem lifeless to some extent, either unable to enjoy the life or being suicidal.
As social stratification has deepened, the result pronounced itself in every aspect of life. The description of small London street that had fallen into disrepair is most illuminative: “...a certain sinister block of building thrust forward its gable on the street. It… showed no window, nothing but a door on the lower story and a blind … discolored wall on the upper; and bore in every feature, the marks of prolonged and sordid negligence” (Stevenson 13). Depressive environment conveys the decline, poverty, and criminal neighborhood. The consequent introduction of Mr. Hyde brings in the speculation as for any possible relationship he might have with the dignified Dr. Jekyll.
The influence of concepts drawn from Darwin, Lombroso and Nordau is clearly traceable throughout the plot. Dr. Jekyll’s image conforms to the notion of middle-class cultural decline and social parasitism. “In the civilized world there obviously prevails a twilight mood which finds expression, amongst other ways, in all sorts of odd aesthetic fashions” (Nordau 43). Unsurprisingly, Dr. Jekyll stages a perverse experiment, the very nature of which is well beyond the imagination of an ordinary man. Despite the implicit description, the outcome is predictable and ruthless, leaving the reader in no doubt as for the causality.
Mr. Hyde, on the other hand, seems to meet the criteria of degeneration. Being repeatedly compared to an ape, he suggests the idea of possible return to an atavistic form. However, the choice of Mr. Hyde’s descriptive characteristics obviously has the explanation that is more plausible. In no uncertain terms Stevenson builds the comprehensive and accurate picture of an outlaw, as “criminal possesses certain physical and mental characteristics, which mark him out as a special type, materially and morally diverse from the bulk of mankind” (Lombroso and Ferrero 51). This somewhat hyperbolic description of Mr. Hyde is most demonstrative of Stevenson’s exposure to the same social phenomena that had influenced his contemporary psychology researchers. Seemingly opposed to Dr. Jekyll, Hyde is essentially nothing else than the by-product of the same social deficiencies: “All these new tendencies … are manifestations of degeneration and hysteria, and identical with the mental stigmata … belonging to these” (Nordau 43). Consequently, both psychics of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are of the type that Lombroso tended to criminalize and Nordau attributed to degeneration.
The obvious moral of the story gets the final shaping in the death note received by Mr. Utterson. Both controversial and mystifying, the letter is one of Stevenson’s masterstrokes: “Should the throes of change take me in the act of writing it, Hyde will tear it in pieces; but if some time shall have elapsed after I have laid it by, his wonderful selfishness and circumscription to the moment will probably save it once again from the action of his ape-like spite” (Stevenson 96). As revealed in Dr. Jekyll’s confession, his discovery and consequent experiments prove the ultimate co-existence of two different personalities inside a single man. What is not so obvious, this statement presents such a co-existence as a genuine and universal characteristic of the human nature, rather than hypothesizing it.
As both characters residing in the same body are gone, Stevenson leaves the reader along with Mr. Utterson to wonder about the eternal questions. There are no ready answers to them. There are no men or women who are purely decent or ultimately evil: those personality features are inseparable. The literary exaggeration Stevenson had used in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde prompts the reader with an obvious and sad conclusion about the Victorian fall. If Dr. Jekyll exemplifies the merits of that age, then the harsh estimations of Nordau and Lombroso are firmly in place.