Duality and Complexity in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde is a novel which is arguably entirely about duality. The most obvious example is of course that of the contrast between Jekyll and Hyde themselves, but underneath that is a multitude of smaller oppositions, such as dark and light; private and public; and animal and man, which collectively underline and strengthen the feeling of duality which permeates the novella. This essay will examine several of these dualities, how they interact and how they enhance the themes and messages of the story itself.
The relationship between dark and light is one which is repeatedly addressed throughout the story. While it is common in many types of novel, it has particular significance in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde, as there are characters onto which the reader can directly imprint dark and light. Hyde is repeatedly characterized in dark ways; during his first appearance in the story, in Enfield’s recounting of the night the girl was trampled, he is described as possessing a “black, sneering coolness” (p.10) and, for contrast, the doctor is described on the previous page as being of “no particular… colour” (p.9). In addition, when the doctor looks at Hyde, he is described as turning “sick and white” (p.9). Jekyll’s change in demeanor after the murder of Carew is also described in these terms; his face is described as seeming to “open and brighten” (p.29). Following the meeting between Dr. Lanyon and Mr. Hyde, as is revealed in Lanyon’s letter later in the story, Jekyll sends Utterson a message and this section is replete with images of dark and light. The content of the message is described as “darkly mysterious” (p.30), and the portion which is shared with the reader shows that Jekyll is also thinking in these terms; he demands of Utterson that he be allowed to go his “own dark way” (p.30) and suggests that by acquiescing to his wish for isolation, Utterson would “lighten [his] destiny” (p.30). There are many other examples throughout the text, and Hyde is almost always associated with darkness (only once is Hyde described in ‘light’ terms; just after Utterson meets him for the first time, he is said to be “pale and dwarfish” (p.17)). Even characters’ appraisals of Hyde’s temperament include this dichotomy; Utterson describes him as possessing “black secrets” (p.19), and again directly compares him to Jekyll, whose worst secrets, according to Utterson, are “like sunshine” (p.19). This comparison extends even to the description of setting and place. Stevenson describes a “haggard shaft of daylight [which] would glance in between the swirling wreaths” (p.23), and streetlamps illuminating a scene in “a regular pattern of light and shadow” (p.15). The close relationship between dark and light is a recurring technique throughout the story; rarely is the concept of ‘dark’ mentioned without a corresponding mention of ‘light’ somewhere in the text nearby. Furthermore, the juxtaposition between light and dark is also addressed several times in the novella; people who are looking at Hyde, or thinking about him, are often said to be white or pale. The doctor in Enfield’s tale is one example, as is Jekyll’s reaction to Utterson’s mention of Hyde’s name during their conversation about his will – “the large handsome face of Dr. Jekyll grew pale to the very lips” (p.20). Lanyon, too, is described as having “grown pale” (p.29) after seeing Hyde transform into Jekyll. If dark and light are accepted as metaphors for good and bad, the effect here is that characters’ goodness is intensified upon seeing Hyde, in much the same way that a light patch appears lighter when next to something dark. The interweaving of these two concepts serves to make an overall point about the overarching duality of Jekyll and Hyde themselves; as is made clear throughout Jekyll’s full statement of the case, the dark (evil) side of man and the light (virtuous) side, while being opposed by definition, are nevertheless lashed together by necessity. This is also the case for dark and light themselves; where there is no light, there is dark, so despite their opposition they are two sides of the same coin.
Another pairing to which that analogy is applicable is that of public and private. Especially in Victorian society, known for its puritanical bent and clear-cut distinction between lower and upper classes, public and private faces often had to be very different. The first example in the text of someone curtailing their wants due to concerns about propriety is Utterson, who is said to drink gin to “mortify a taste for vintages” (p.7). He is said, on the same page, to enjoy the theatre but not to have attended a show in twenty years. While Utterson does not precisely ‘let loose’ whilst at home, these details imply that his private desires are such that they need to be contained; this is again addressed when he is reading “some dry divinity” (p.12) on his desk, seemingly for a similar purpose as drinking the gin. Utterson’s feelings on the matter are actually baldly stated at one point, where he is identified as a man “to whom the fanciful was the immodest” (p.13). The conflict between Jekyll’s private and public lives plays out rather more bombastically than Utterson’s, but the inclusion of these small details show that these aspects are present even in the unlikeliest candidates and provides a through-line, linking the men together. Naturally, the gulf between Jekyll’s public and private selves is the main thrust of the novella, and much of the material illustrating this point surrounds him. One of the ways in which Stevenson highlights this is through the mention of windows; a window can be considered a gateway through which one can view the private from a public place and vice versa. Hyde’s house is described at the beginning of the novella as “show[ing] no window” (p.8), emphasizing the inability of the characters and reader to view what goes on in there; additionally, the block at the end of Jekyll’s garden is said to be a “dingy windowless structure” (p.25). Utterson and Enfield finding Jekyll at the window also reinforces this effect; their ability to see him nearly leads them to witness his transformation into Hyde, or his private self, as is suggested by the haste with which he slams the window shut. This is the only time when Jekyll is seen near or through a window, and it is the last time he appears in the story’s chronology, so it is arguably a foreshadowing of Jekyll’s forthcoming exposure and the illumination of his private life. Connected to this symbolism is the repeated mention of eyes in the story; often, characters in the story make judgements about others based on their eyes, as if they betray something deeper than the person’s general manner. In this sense, eyes function a lot like windows, allowing access to private areas of information. This begins in the very first paragraph of the novella; Utterson has “something eminently human beacon[ing] from his eye” (p.7), prompting the reader to trust him and identify with him. Also, after Utterson’s first mention of Hyde to Jekyll, “there came a blackness about [Jekyll’s] eyes” (p.20) – this ties in with the idea of Hyde being represented by darkness. When Lanyon becomes ill, Utterson judges the state of his character and health not by his general appearance, but specifically by “a look in the eye” (p.29). This relationship between eyes and private thoughts is made more overt during Jekyll’s full statement of the case; when he writes about how close Hyde is to him, he describes it as “closer than a wife, closer than an eye” (p.61).
The difference between animal and man is also an important dichotomy in the story. Hyde is very often described in animalistic terms; although not looking like an animal, necessarily, his movements and speech are often described as such. The first parallels are in Hyde’s encounter with Utterson; when Utterson says his name, he shrinks back “with a hissing intake of the breath” (p.16). Additionally, on the next page, he “snarl[s] aloud into a savage laugh” (p.17). On this same page, Utterson finds Hyde “hardly human” (p.17). Later in the story the comparisons are drawn more noticeably; for example, Hyde attacks Carew “with ape-like fury” (p.22), when Poole sees him wearing his mask, he moves “like a monkey” (p. 37) and when Utterson is breaking down the door of the cabinet, Hyde screeches “as of mere animal terror” (p.38). Several other animalistic words are used throughout the story to describe Hyde’s actions, including “roaring” (p.56), “mauled” (p.56) and “growl” (p.58). These points are especially relevant for two reasons; firstly, the then-recent publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species setting forth a scientific theory in which humans and animals were, in essence, indistinguishable; and secondly, Victorian society being as image-conscious and puritanical as it was, ‘animal’ behaviur would be considered a disgrace, and the idea that humans might be descended from animals was practically heretical. It is arguable that The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is, at least in part, conveying that humankind has both an animal side and a refined, cultured side, which the Victorians would have been considered to be polar opposites. However, this interpretation does not tell the full story, as Patricia Ferrer-Medina states in Wild Humans: “given his brutal nature, Hyde’s behavior is surprisingly civil: he refers to himself as a gentleman” (Ferrer-Medina, 2007, p.11). Mr. Hyde is shown several times throughout the story to be capable of refinement; when he first meets Utterson, he agrees to doing a favor for him with the words “with pleasure” (p.16), and he also furnishes Utterson with his address once he has seen his face – a social nicety which is far from animalistic.
During his meeting with Lanyon, too, he is shown as capable of maintaining a certain level of decorum, saying “I beg your pardon, Dr. Lanyon” (p.45) and being described as speaking “civilly” (p.45). The idea of Hyde as an animal (reinforced by his name being a homophone for “hide”, as in the hide of an animal) is not completely congruous, then, with his characterization throughout the novel; while he elicits extremely negative reactions from others, it is not often due to his behavior. This is arguably a comment on how animals do not necessarily have to act like animals all the time in order to be counted as such, and indeed that perhaps even humans themselves could be animals, as was suggested in Darwin’s paper. Jekyll’s statement that “man is not truly one, but truly two” (p.48) is perhaps the most revealing comment on this issue; it can easily be taken to mean that humans are not only cultured, but also have an animalistic dark side which is a remnant of our evolutionary history. This is further strengthened by Jekyll mentioning “the thorough and primitive duality of man” (p.49), the word ‘primitive’ potentially referring to humankind’s animal past as well as somewhat mirroring the word ‘primate’, since they have the same root word. Jekyll’s insistence when describing himself looking in the mirror as Hyde that “this, too, was myself” (p.51) is the final piece of evidence which supports this interpretation. In Wild Humans, Patricia Ferrer-Medina states: “The concept of evolution is also mentioned to explain why Hyde is smaller in stature than Jekyll. The doctor explains that because he had exercised his evil side less than his good side, when the evil side was given free rein it was “less robust and less developed.”” (Ferrer-Medina, 2007, p.10). This speaks of the evolutionary influence on Stevenson’s work, an influence which, crucially, placed the concepts of animal and man on the same spectrum, rather than being opposites.
There are also some interesting connections between these established dualities. For example, while a window is representative of private and public, it is also representative of light and dark; a window lets in light just as easily as it may let secrets out. There is also a correlation between the dualities themselves, as the dark is often an effective shield for private affairs, keeping them hidden from the public. One of the ironies of the text is that when Hyde’s door is broken by Utterson, he is found dead, but in a brightly-lit, cozy room. One would expect Hyde, as a figure of malice, brutishness and animality, to reside primarily in the dark, as would be in keeping with his characterization throughout the novella. However, the room being bright and warm is actually representative of these dualities, in that Jekyll’s private life (i.e. Mr. Hyde himself) is suddenly being illuminated.
The concepts of public and private are also important within the text itself, as Jekyll uses them to disassociate himself from the consequences of his actions, and to avoid moral responsibility for them. Jekyll says, in his final letter, that he allowed himself to become distanced from the actions of Hyde since “it was Hyde, after all, and Hyde alone, that was guilty. Jekyll was no worse; he woke again to his good qualities seemingly unimpaired” (p.53). This puts forward Jekyll’s seeming idea that one’s private self should not be reflected, at all, in one’s public self. In In The Company of Strangers, Ronald Thomas writes:
“Jekyll’s consistent absenting of himself from his own texts accords with his purpose in creating Hyde in the first place: to deny himself moral agency, to cease being an “I.” This intention is fulfilled at the end of Jekyll’s statement in the hopeless confusion with which the first- and third-person pronouns are used; the writer finally begins referring to both Jekyll and Hyde as “them,” as autonomous in other words (95).” (Thomas, 1986, p.8/9))
By separating the two parts of himself, the public and private, at the end of the text Jekyll himself cannot identify with either one.
Ultimately, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde is replete with dualities; these are only three examples, but in many ways they are interwoven and self-reinforcing in such a way that they lend an extreme depth to the text, both in intrinsic and extrinsic readings. The presence of so many oppositions gives the novella a great sense of ambiguity, since they are so often mixed and matched, and it also (perhaps crucially) underlines the overarching theme: as put by Jekyll, that “man is not truly one, but truly two” (p.48).
Thomas, R. R. (1986) ‘In the Company of Strangers: Absent Voices in Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Beckett’s Company’. Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 32 no. 2, pp. 157 – 173
Ferrer-Medina, P. (2007) ‘The Culture/Nature Duality in Marie Darrieussecq’s Pig Tales and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The Comparatist, vol. 31, pp. 67 – 87
Stevenson, R. L. (2003) ‘Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’. New York: WW Norton.
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