Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: Analysis and Themes

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

The story for Jekyll and Hyde famously came to Robert Louis Stevenson in a dream, and according to Stevenson’s stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, Stevenson wrote the first draft of the novella in just three days, before promptly throwing it onto the fire when his wife criticised it. Stevenson then rewrote it from scratch, taking ten days this time, and the novella was promptly published in January 1886.

The story is part detective-story or mystery, part Gothic horror, and part science fiction, so it’s worth analysing how Stevenson fuses these different elements.

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: analysis

Now it’s time for some words of analysis about Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic 1886 novella. However, perhaps ‘analyses’ (plural) would be more accurate, since there never could be one monolithic meaning of a story so ripe with allegory and suggestive symbolism.

Like another novella that was near-contemporary with Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and possibly influenced by it (H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine), the symbols often point in several different directions at once.

Any attempt to reduce Stevenson’s story of doubling to a moral fable about drugs or drink, or a tale about homosexuality, is destined to lose sight of the very thing which makes the novella so relevant to so many people: its multifaceted quality. So here are some (and they are only some) of the many interpretations of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde which have been put forward in the last 120 years or so.

A psychoanalytic or proto-psychoanalytic analysis

In this interpretation, Jekyll is the ego and Hyde the id (in Freud’s later terminology). The ego is the self in Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, while the id is the set of primal drives found in our unconscious: the urge to kill, or do inappropriate sexual things, for instance.

Several of Robert Louis Stevenson’s essays, such as ‘A Chapter on Dreams’ (1888), prefigure some of Freud’s later ideas; and there was increasing interest in the workings of the human mind towards the end of the nineteenth century (two leading journals in the field, Brain and Mind, had both been founded in the 1870s).

The psychoanalytic interpretation is a popular one with many readers of Jekyll and Hyde, and since the novella is clearly about repression of some sort, one can make a psychoanalytic interpretation – an analysis grounded in psychoanalysis, if you like – quite convincingly.

It might be significant, reading the story from a post-Freudian perspective, that Hyde is described as childlike at several points: does he embody Jekyll’s – and, indeed, man’s – deep desire to return to a time before responsibility and full maturity, when one was freer to act on impulse? Early infancy is the formative period for much Freudian psychoanalysis.

Recall the empty middle-class scenes at the beginning of the book: Utterson and Enfield on their joyless Sunday walks, for instance. Hyde attacks father-figures (Sir Danvers Carew, the MP whom he murders, is a white-haired old gentleman), which would fall in line with Freud’s concept of the Oedipus complex and Jekyll’s desire to return to a time before adult life with its responsibilities and disappointments.

However, one fly in the Oedipal ointment is that Hyde also attacks a young girl – almost the complete opposite of the ‘old man’ or father figure embodied by Danvers Carew.

Nevertheless, psychoanalytic readings of the novella have been popular for some time, and it’s worth remembering that the idea for the book came to Stevenson in a dream. Observe, also, the presence of dreams and dreamlike scenes in the novel itself, such as when Jekyll remarks that he ‘received Lanyon’s condemnation partly in a dream; it was partly in a dream that I came home to my own house and got into bed’.

For more on the psychological aspects of Stevenson’s story, see his correspondence with F. W. H. Myers (in his letters) and Stevenson’s account of the role dreams played in the creation of Jekyll and Hyde, see his 1888 essay ‘A Chapter on Dreams’ (included as an appendix in the Oxford World’s Classics edition: Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Tales (Oxford World’s Classics)).

An anti-alcohol morality tale?

Alternatively, a different interpretation: we might analyse these dreamlike aspects of the novel in another way and see the novel as being about alcoholism and temperance, subjects which were being fiercely debated at the time Stevenson was writing.

Here, then, the ‘transforming draught’ which Jekyll concocts represents alcohol, and Jekyll, upon imbibing the draught, becomes a violent, unpredictable person unknown even to himself. (This reading has been most thoroughly explored in Thomas L. Reed’s 2006 study The Transforming Draught.)

Note how often wine crops up in this short book: it turns up first of all in the second sentence of the novella, when Utterson is found sipping it, and Hyde, we learn, has a closet ‘filled with wine’. Might the continual presence of wine be a clue that we are all Hydes waiting to happen? Note how the opening paragraph informs us that Utterson drinks gin when he is alone.

This thesis – that the novella is about alcohol and temperance – is intriguing, but has been contested by critics such as Julia Reid for being too speculative and reductionist: see her review of The Transforming Draught in The Review of English Studies, 2007.

The ‘drugs’ interpretation

Similarly, the idea that the ‘draught’ is a metaphor for some other drug, whether opium or cocaine. Scholars are unsure as to whether Stevenson was on drugs when he wrote the book: some accounts say Stevenson used cocaine to finish the manuscript; others say he took ergot, which is the substance from which LSD was later synthesised. Some say he was too sick to be taking anything.

You could purchase cocaine and opium from your local chemist in 1880s London (indeed, another invention of 1886, Coca-Cola, originally contained cocaine, as the drink’s name still testifies: don’t worry, it doesn’t any more).

This is essentially a development of the previous interpretation concerning alcohol, and arguably has similar limitations in being too restrictive an interpretation. However, note the way that Jekyll, in his ‘full statement’ becomes reliant on the ‘draught’ or ‘salt’ towards the end.

A religious analysis

Religious interpretations of Jekyll and Hyde have also proved popular: see the references to Hyde as a ‘devil’ and a ‘child of Hell’, but also the numerous Biblical allusions (and here the Luckhurst edition, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Tales (Oxford World’s Classics), is particularly useful).

James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner n/e (Oxford World’s Classics) (1824) is an important precursor to Stevenson’s book in this regard. Hogg’s book is told by a man who thinks he can get away with committing awful crimes (crimes which he attributes to his double or alter ego!) because he has been pre-selected for salvation (which is the Calvinist doctrine in which Stevenson himself was brought up).

As such, the story has immediate links with the story Stevenson would write sixty years later. Stevenson was an atheist who managed to escape the constrictive religion of his parents, but he remained haunted by Calvinistic doctrines for the rest of his life, and much of his work can be seen as an attempt to grapple with these issues which had affected and afflicted him so much as a child.

The sexuality interpretation

Some critics have interpreted Jekyll and Hyde in light of late nineteenth-century attitudes to sexuality: note the almost total absence of women from the story, barring the odd maid and ‘old hag’, and that hapless girl trampled underfoot by Hyde.

Some critics have suggested that the idea of blackmail for homosexual acts lurks behind the story, and the novella itself mentions this when Enfield tells Utterson that he refers to the house of Mr Hyde as ‘Black Mail House’ as a consequence of the girl-trampling scene in the street.

Elaine Showalter has called the book ‘a fable of fin-de-siecle homosexual panic, the discovery and resistance of the homosexual self’ in which ‘Jekyll’s apparent infatuation with Hyde reflects the late nineteenth-century upper-middle-class eroticisation of working-class men as the ideal homosexual objects’. (See Showalter’s Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siecle.)

As such, the novella becomes an allegory for the double life lived by many homosexual Victorian men, who had to hide (or Hyde) their illicit liaisons from their friends and families. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote to his friend Robert Bridges that the girl-trampling incident early on in the narrative was ‘perhaps a convention: he was thinking of something unsuitable for fiction’.

Some have interpreted this statement – by Hopkins, himself a repressed homosexual – as a reference to homosexual activity in late Victorian London.

Consider in this connection the fact that Hyde enters Jekyll’s house through the ‘back way’ – even, at one point ‘the back passage’. 1885, the year Stevenson wrote the book, was the year of the Criminal Law Amendment Act (commonly known as the Labouchere Amendment), which criminalised acts of ‘gross indecency’ between men (this was the act which, ten years later, would put Oscar Wilde in gaol).

However, we should be wary of reading the text as about ‘homosexual panic’, since, as Harry Cocks points out, homosexuality was frequently ‘named openly, publicly and repeatedly’ in nineteenth-century criminal courts. But then could fiction for a mass audience as readily name such things?

A Darwinian analysis

Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species, which laid out the theory of evolution by natural selection, had been published in 1859, when Stevenson was still a child. In this reading, Hyde represents the primal, animal origin of modern, civilised man.

Consider here the repeated uses of the word ‘apelike’ in relation to Hyde, suggesting he is an atavistic throwback to an earlier, more primitive species of man than Homo sapiens. This reading incorporates theories of something called ‘devolution’, an idea (now discredited) which suggested that life forms could actually evolve backwards into more primitive forms.

This is also linked with late Victorian fears concerning degeneration and decadence among the human race. Is Jekyll’s statement that he ‘bore the stamp, of lower elements in my soul’ an allusion to Charles Darwin’s famous phrase from the end of The Descent of Man (1871), ‘man […] bears […] the indelible stamp of his lowly origin’?

In his story ‘Olalla’, another tale of the double which Stevenson published in 1885, he writes: ‘Man has risen; if he has sprung from the brutes he can descend to the same level again’.

This Darwinian analysis of Jekyll and Hyde could incorporate elements of the sexual which the previous interpretation also touches upon, but would view the novel as a portrayal of man’s – and we mean specifically man’s here – repression of the darker, violent, primitive side of his nature associated with rape, pillage, conquest, and murder.

This looks back to a psychoanalytic reading, with the ‘id’ being the home of primal sexual desire and lust. The girl-tramping scene may take on another significance here: it’s a ‘girl’ rather than a boy because it symbolises Hyde’s animalistic desire to conquer and brutalise someone of the opposite, not the same, sex.

There have been many critical readings of the novella in relation to sex and sexuality, but it’s important to point out that Stevenson denied that the novella was about sexuality (see below).

A study in hypocrisy?

Or perhaps not: perhaps there is something in the idea that hypocrisy is the novella’s theme, as Stevenson himself suggested in a letter of November 1887 to John Paul Bocock, editor of the New York Sun: ‘The harm was in Jekyll,’ Stevenson wrote, ‘because he was a hypocrite – not because he was fond of women; he says so himself; but people are so filled full of folly and inverted lust, that they can think of nothing but sexuality. The Hypocrite let out the beast’.

This analysis of Jekyll and Hyde sees the two sides to Jekyll’s personality as a portrayal of the dualistic nature of Victorian society, where you must be respectable and civilised on the outside, while all the time harbouring an inward lust, violence, and desire which you have to bring under control.

This was a popular theme for many late nineteenth-century writers – witness not only Oscar Wilde’s 1891 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray but also the double lives of Jack and Algernon in Wilde’s comedy of manners, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). This is a more open-ended interpretation, and the novella does appear to be about repression of some sort.

In this respect, this interpretation is similar to the psychoanalytic reading proposed above, but it also tallies with Stevenson’s own assertion that the story is about hypocrisy. Everyone in this book is masking their private thoughts or desires from others.

Note how even the police officer, Inspector Newcomen, when he learns of the murder of the MP, goes from being horrified one moment to excited the next, as ‘the next moment his eye lighted up with professional ambition’. He can barely contain his glee. The maid who answers the door at Hyde’s rooms has ‘an evil face, smoothed by hypocrisy; but her manners were excellent’.

From these clues, we can also posit a reading of the novel which sees it as about the class structure of late nineteenth-century Britain, where Jekyll represents the comfortable middle class and Hyde is the repressed – or, indeed, oppressed – working-class figure.

Note here, however, how Hyde is repeatedly described as a ‘gentleman’ by those who see him, and that he attacks Danvers Carew with a ‘cane’, rather than, say, a club (though it is reported, tellingly, that he ‘clubbed’ Carew to death with it).

A scientific interpretation

The reference to the evil maid with excellent manners places Jekyll’s own duality at the extreme end of a continuum, where everyone is putting on a respectable and acceptable mask which hides or conceals the evil truth lurking behind it. So we might see Jekyll’s scientific experiment as merely a physical embodiment of what everyone does.

This leads some critics to ask, then, whether the novella about the misuse of science. Or is the ‘tincture’ merely a scientific, chemical composition because a magical draught or elixir would be unbelievable to an 1880s reader? Arthur Machen, an author who was much influenced by Stevenson and especially by Jekyll and Hyde, made this point in a letter of 1894, when he grumbled:

In these days the supernatural per se is entirely incredible; to believe, we must link our wonders to some scientific or pseudo-scientific fact, or basis, or method. Thus we do not believe in ‘ghosts’ but in telepathy, not in ‘witch-craft’ but in hypnotism. If Mr Stevenson had written his great masterpiece about 1590-1650, Dr Jekyll would have made a compact with the devil. In 1886 Dr Jekyll sends to the Bond Street chemists for some rare drugs.

This is worth pondering: the use of the ‘draught’ lends the story an air of scientific authenticity, which makes the story a form of science fiction rather than fantasy: the tincture which Jekyll drinks is not magical, merely a chemical potion of some vaguely defined sort. But to say that the story is actually about the dangers of misusing science could be a leap too far.

We run the risk of confusing the numerous film adaptations of the book with the book itself: we immediately picture wild-haired soot-faced scientists causing explosions and mixing up potions in a dark laboratory, but in fact this is not really what the story is about, merely the means through which the real meat of the story – the transformation of Jekyll into Hyde – is effected.

It’s only once this split has been achieved that the real story, about the dark side of man’s nature which he represses, comes to light. (Compare Frankenstein here.)

All of these interpretations of Jekyll and Hyde can be – and have been – proposed, but it’s worth bearing in mind that the popularity of Stevenson’s tale may lie in the very polyvalent and ambiguous nature of the text, the fact that it exists as a symbol without a key, a riddle without a definitive answer.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

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