Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic fiction The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde would seem on the surface to be a reasonably straightforward narrative – a discourse on good versus evil and the moral opposites that exist within.
Nevertheless the story does present certain mysteries that have puzzled readers since its first publication, and behind these lie pointers to the real significance of a story that is often misunderstood.
The appearance of Mr Hyde
Take the conundrum that John Sutherland highlights in his essay ‘What does Edward Hyde look like?’– that “where Hyde’s face ought to be in the narrative there is a blank” (the essay can be found in Is Heathcliff a Murderer?: Great Puzzles in Nineteenth-Century Fiction).
When Enfield attempts to paint a picture of Hyde he comes up with nothing:
‘I can’t describe him. And it’s not want of memory; for I declare I can see him at this moment.’
While we can’t see Hyde in the text, we can feel him. Enfield describes his instant loathing of Hyde, and relates that the doctor in attendance at the start of the story “turns sick and white with the desire to kill him”. As a crowd gathers, the women become “as wild as harpies… with hateful faces” as soon as they set eyes on him.
These visceral reactions, we are told by Enfield, are not due to his visual appearance so much as a sense of something detestable about him: “He gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point. He’s an extraordinary looking man, and yet I really can name nothing out of the way.”
We later learn that Hyde has never been photographed, and that:
…the few who could describe him differed widely, as common observers will. Only on one point, were they agreed; and that was the haunting sense of unexpressed deformity with which the fugitive impressed his beholders.
I think that the answer to John Sutherland’s question is this: Stevenson presents Hyde with a ‘blank’ face because we are meant to see every person’s face reflected in him, including, of course, our own. The deformity is unexpressed because we identify our own deformity within Hyde, the parts of our psyche that we hide from society and ourselves.
Stevenson presents Hyde as a kind of dark mirror, exposing the hidden and shameful parts within all of us. This explains the anger and violence he provokes in anyone who meets him.
The dark mirror of the subconscious
Stevenson was writing this 30 years before Freud presented his breakthrough theories on the conscious and subconscious minds, but it’s hard not to see pre-echoes. The dual houses of Jekyll and Hyde present an apt metaphor for the Freudian view of mind, as Stephen King points out:
On Jekyll’s side, the side presented to the public eye, it seems a lovely, graceful building, inhabited by one of London’s most respected physicians. On the other side – but still part of the same building – we find rubbish and squalor, people abroad on questionable errands at three in the morning, and that ‘blistered and distained door’ set in a ‘blind forehead of discoloured wall.’ …Even if you’re an anti-Freudian and won’t grant Stevenson’s insight into the human psyche, you’ll perhaps grant that the building serves as a nice symbol for the duality of human nature.
From Danse Macabre
The house offers a psychological symbol throughout the story, presenting a winding labyrinth of stairs, corridors, cabinets, theatres, locked doors within locked doors, drawers and presses – a metaphor for the tortuous journey into the inner psyche and its central mysteries.
When Utterson and Poole finally break down the door of Jekyll’s inner cabinet to discover what lies within, they eventually discover a ‘cheval glass’ (a body length mirror on a central pivot) “…into whose depths they looked with an involuntary horror.”
‘This glass have seen some strange things, sir,’ whispered Poole.
‘And surely none stranger than itself,’ echoed the lawyer in the same tones.
It’s the dark mirror that’s at the very heart of the story.
Degeneration and the sickness of society
What Steveson is suggesting in this novel is not just that people have hidden dualities, but that society itself has.
In her compelling book Robert Louis Stevenson, Science, and the Fin de Siècle, Julia Reid shows how the contemporary theory of degeneration that haunted fin-de-siécle Europe… “increasingly challenged the meliorist narratives of evolutionist psychology and anthropology.”
Advanced by British scientists, including Henry Maudsley and Edwin Ray Lankster, along with their Continental counterparts, the theory of degeneration recognised that life did not always move from the simple to the complex, and envisaged instead a future characterised by arrested development, atavistic throwbacks, and the disintegration of overly evolved civilisations.
From Robert Louis Stevenson, Science, and the Fin de Siècle
For Stevenson, perhaps, society is sick because of the very fact that it won’t face these inner demons, but prefers to ‘hide’ them away.
The sickness of a society that can’t see itself and can’t know itself, is depicted in some of Stevenson’s finest and subtlest imagery, in which the city’s clouded arterial streets suggest a body laid out on a surgeon’s table.
The following powerful description suggests that the city can only ever be glimpsed in parts and never as a whole. The world around Utterson is seen as if in a nightmare, alienating the lawyer from the very law he serves:
A great chocolate-coloured pall lowered over heaven, but the wind was continually charging and routing these embattled vapours; so that as the cab crawled from street to street, Mr Utterson beheld a marvellous number of degrees and hues of twilight; for here it would be dark like the back-end of evening; and there would be a glow of a rich, lurid brown, like the light of some strange conflagration; and here, for a moment, the fog would be quite broken up, and a haggard shaft of daylight would glance in between the swirling wreaths. The dismal quarter of Soho seen under these changing glimpses, with its muddy ways, and slatternly passengers, and its lamps, which had never been extinguished or had been kindled afresh to combat this mournful reinvasion of darkness, seemed, in the lawyer’s eyes, like a district of some city in a nightmare. The thoughts of his mind, besides, were of the gloomiest dye; and when he glanced at the companion of his drive, he was conscious of some touch of that terror of the law and the law’s officers which may at times assail the most honest.
The hypocrisy of society
What this novel is really about is hypocrisy – its causes, its dangers, the destruction it brings to man’s spirit and the threat it presents to society itself. As Stephen King says:
It is Dr Henry Jekyll who creates Mr Hyde essentially out of Victorian hypocrisy – he wants to be able to carouse and party-down without anyone, even the lowliest Whitechapel drab, knowing that he is anything but saintly Dr Jekyll whose feet are ‘ever treading the upward path’.
From Danse Macabre
In this sense, it is Utterson who becomes the real hero of the story. He is the opposite of Jekyll in that he is the least hypocritical, a man who met many ‘going-down men’… “…and to such as these, so long as they came about his chambers, he never marked a shade of change in his demeanour.”
The opening description makes this clear:
At friendly meetings, and when the wine was to his taste, something eminently human beaconed from his eye; something indeed which never found its way into his talk, but which spoke not only in these silent symbols of the after-dinner face, but more often and loudly in the acts of his life. He was austere with himself; drank gin when he was alone, to mortify a taste for vintages; and though he enjoyed the theatre, had not crossed the doors of one for twenty years. But he had an approved tolerance for others; sometimes wondering, almost with envy, at the high pressure of spirits involved in their misdeeds; and in any extremity inclined to help rather than to reprove.
As King says in Danse Macabre: “The difference between Utterson and Jekyll is that Jekyll would only drink gin to mortify a taste for vintages in public… Jekyll does not want to mortify any of his tastes. He only wants to gratify them in secret.”