The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was written by Robert Louis Stevenson in 1886, a time where the “Gothic Horror” story was at its fullest expression, and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde continues to remain one of the most well written, exciting and terrifying Gothic Horror stories to date. The Gothic Horror story has adapted over time, first being associated with dark, mysterious forces of the personality which were though of as uncivilised and therefore medieval and Gothic.
However, it was then being used to describe the mysterious, the fantastic and occasionally, the horrific, appealing to the emotional side of human experience and throwing off the shackles of reason. Gothic Novels all shared similar settings, which were not just castles but anywhere that created a dark and mysterious atmosphere, and by the nineteenth century, Gothic Horror began to develop into ordinary human beings in familiar environments, to make the reader even more inclined to believe the unbelievable; that such dreadful events could actually happen; and this is exactly what Stevenson has done.
Stevenson wrote Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde at a time where science was still relatively new; Darwin’s theory of evolution had turned what was a very religious world upside-down, and that, combined with the discovery of electricity and other scientific breakthroughs, made people start to believe that anything was possible. It is this that makes the events in Stevenson’s novel, which consists of ordinary characters in familiar settings, that much more believable, and therefore even more terrifying.
Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde fits into this mould of a Gothic Horror story perfectly, and this is largely down to the construction and portrayal of the character of Mr Edward Hyde; the evil half of Dr Jekyll’s personality. Stevenson introduces the theme of their being two sides to everybody’s personality with his opening description of Mr Utterson. Stevenson begins by creating a negative impression of the lawyer, that he is “of a rugged countenance” and that he is “never lighted by a smile”.
This creates the impression that he is unfriendly and cold, and that he does not show his feelings, yet Stevenson manages to compensate for this by saying that Utterson is “yet somehow loveable”, and explains that he “helped people rather than to reprove”. Stevenson’s use a lot of pathetic fallacy throughout the novel is apparent, and this technique is a very strong and common factor displayed in a lot of Gothic Novels.
Stevenson has used it to emphasise the horror that he is describing, and it helps to create a generally terrifying and Gothic atmosphere. An example of this is that Jekyll’s evil side only comes out at night, as this relates to Stevenson’s theme of good and evil, where evil is associated with darkness and mysterious atmospheres. The first we learn of Mr Hyde is through the “very odd story” that Enfield tells Utterson at the beginning of the novel.
Utterson and Enfield are walking through a street, which Stevenson describes as having “an air of invitation” about it, and readers are led to believe that as they are walking, Utterson and Enfield are quite safe in their quiet, peaceful town. However when Enfield begins his “odd story”, it is “about three o’clock”, of what he describes as “a black winter morning”. This gloomy atmosphere, where there was “nothing to be seen but lamps”, leads readers to believe that something “odd” is about to happen.
The very first description of Hyde is that he is “a little man who was stumping”, which suggests that he is not as proper as the other characters in the novel, and that there is, perhaps, something different about him. Quickly, Stevenson lets the readers know that this inkling is right, as Hyde “trampled calmly over the child’s body”, which is horrible enough, but readers then learn that Hyde “left her screaming on the ground”. This suggests that Hyde was not fazed by what he had just done, and walked off as if nothing had happened; this is almost “evil”.
Although it is not a particularly horrific event, it gives readers a taste for what is going to come, and they can guess that this is not going to be the first of many such incidents, that can only get worse from here. When Enfield “collared” Hyde, Stevenson’s description of Hyde at this point already suggest that he is not quite human, and that although nobody can quite pinpoint it, he has a peculiar effect on all those who encounter him, and this is Stevenson’s way of conveying the sinister atmosphere that is so often created in a Gothic Novel.
For example, Enfield describes that Hyde just gave him “one look, so ugly that it brought out the sweat on me like running”. Also, Enfield explains that the girl Hyde knocked over was screaming not because she was in pain, but because she was “frightened”; and Hyde had such an effect on the doctor, Sawbones, that every time he looked at Hyde, he “turned sick and white with the desire to kill him”.
When Utterson asks Enfield what Hyde looked like, Enfield explains that “he is not easy to describe”, and that “he gives the strong feeling of deformity”, which suggests that his appearance is enigmatic, which backs up what I have already mentioned of him having a peculiar effect on all those who encounter him, and also that he is not quite human. All of this makes Hyde a typical “Gothic character” and he certainly fits into the “tyrannical males mould” that is often used to describe such Gothic characters.
The house that Hyde goes into to get the gold and the cheque – Dr Jekyll’s house – “showed no window” and throughout the novel there are further references to this, as well as to locked doors, barred windows and a “thick, muffling fog”. All of this adds to Stevenson’s creation of a Gothic atmosphere of secrecy and mystery. Although Utterson and Enfield agree “never to refer to this again” (“this” being Hyde), Utterson makes it his mission to “seek” Hyde, and try to work out the mystery regarding him and Dr Jekyll’s will, and after nights of waiting for Hyde to appear at the door he was first associated with, Hyde does just that.
It is always night time when Utterson waits for Hyde, and this particular night was accompanied by “frost in the air” and was “very silent” and “very solitary”, which puts readers on guard, as throughout Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Stevenson uses dark, silent nights as the setting for horrific events, such as when Hyde “trampled calmly over the child’s body”.
This use of pathetic fallacy makes it easy for Stevenson to make events instantly terrifying, as the recognition of this setting automatically frightens readers as they know that something bad is about to happen, and it adds powerfully to the brooding and menacing atmosphere he has successfully created. Stevenson represents “the beast in man” by referring to Hyde in a number of animal images, and when Utterson greets Hyde, Hyde “shrank back with a hissing intake of breath”, which shows his “momentary” fear, as if he has been caught off-guard.
Hyde avoids showing Utterson his face, and only does so on request; this builds up the element of mystery that is sustained throughout the novella, and readers still do not know very much about Hyde. Further on in the novel Stevenson describes Hyde as moving “like a money”, by which, with reference to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Stevenson is suggesting that by turning into the “ape-like” Hyde, Jekyll is evolving backwards. As the pair question each other, Hyde “snarled into a savage laugh”, which gives Hyde an element of terror about him.
When Hyde is described for the second time – this time from Utterson’s own point of view – he has the same “dwarfish” stance and gives the same “impression of deformity without any nameable malformation” of which Enfield emphasised when he tried to describe the character, which again adds to the air of mystery surrounding the character himself. Hyde speaks with a “husky whispering” and a “broken voice”, which although readers do not yet know, Stevenson is referring to the fact that Hyde is not a whole person.
Utterson continues to be confused and frightened by Hyde even after he has disappeared, as he tries to describe the “unknown disgust, loathing and fear” that he senses from the character, which convinces the readers that Hyde is most certainly someone or something to be feared, and this is confirmed when Utterson links Hyde with the devil by saying he says that Hyde’s face was marked with “Satan’s signature”. Stevenson continues to leave readers in suspense until Hyde’s true identity is revealed to them in the ninth chapter, although he does drop clues along the way to allow readers to try and figure the mystery for themselves.
The plot is eventually exposed by Dr Laynon, who witnessed Hyde’s transformation back into Jekyll for himself, and recalls his account in detail in the ninth chapter; “Dr Lanyon’s Narrative”. Lanyon’s first task is to recover, “with all its contents as they stand”, the fourth drawer down in Jekyll’s cabinet. Stevenson uses the recurring motif of the locked door to re-enforce the atmosphere of secrecy which pervades the Gothic novel; the lock of which was so strong that it took two highly skilled men two hours to open.
Of the contents, Lanyon notices in particular a “blood red liquor” with a “highly pungent” smell; Stevenson has used this to suggest that Jekyll is involved in highly dark, secretive and dangerous practices, and that the reader is soon going to be dragged further than ever before into this terrifying mystery. Lanyon is told to meet Jekyll’s “messenger” at midnight, which adds to Stevenson’s creation of a Gothic atmosphere and adds mystery and suspense to the story. Stevenson is using his clichi?? setting of it being a dark, silent night, as he has throughout the novel, to build up to the main event.
Readers will recognise this familiar setting and horror will rise inside them, as they do not know what is going to happen next; only that it will be terrifying and is going to involve the evil character of Hyde. When the messenger does appear, it is instantly recognisable to readers that it is Hyde through Lanyon’s use of Gothic vocabulary to describe the figure. The first description of him is that he is a “small man crouching against the pillars”, and Lanyon describes his “disgustful curiosity” at the sight of the man wearing a “ludicrous accoutrement” of oversized clothes which “was far from moving [Lanyon] to laughter”.
Stevenson again refers to the “beast in man” by demoting Hyde to a “creature” that is “seizing, surprising and revolting”. This description of Hyde is sinister and grotesque, to make him fit even better into his Gothic role as a tyrannical male, which further builds up the Gothic atmosphere of mystery and suspense that Stevenson is trying to create as readers wait for Hyde’s true identity to be revealed to them. Stevenson lets readers know that something dangerous is about to happen as the “policeman not far off” causes Hyde to make “greater haste”.
Hyde appears to be hysterical with “sombre excitement”, which leaves readers terrified as to what is going to happen when Lanyon gives him the contents of the drawer. Stevenson builds up the atmosphere of excitement, mystery and suspense by building up Hyde’s joy; he is so excited at the prospect of Lanyon having got the drawer for him that he has to “put his hand to his throat” to “wrestle against the approaches of hysteria”. When Lanyon does reveal the package to him, Hyde “sprang to it”, and this suggests that the contents are very exciting, yet dangerous and leads the reader to fear for Hyde’s life as Lanyon does.
Stevenson suggests that Hyde is pure evil when he “turned a dreadful smile” and then when he opens the package he “uttered one loud sob” which was “of such immense relief” that Lanyon “sat petrified”. This event is building up the tension, and it appears that Hyde is getting so excited that he can no longer control himself; to Stevenson uses Lanyon’s narration to emphasise the horror of the situation and describe just how terrified Lanyon is. In turn, this makes the reader terrified, as they know that something dreadful and horrifying is about to take place.
Stevenson is building up to the main event, and is using as much Gothic description as he can to terrify readers and get them gripped for what is about to happen; this is another classic sign of a Gothic novel. On pouring the potion, Hyde gives Lanyon a choice; this is that Hyde can either go home and drink the potion on his own, or he can stay for Lanyon to watch what is about to happen. This is clearly a challenge to Lanyon and everything he represents. Hyde obviously intends to teach the doctor, Jekyll’s “ignorant, blatant pedant”, a lesson; to him this would be to “settle” matters.
He is in total command here, recognising that Lanyon’s “greed of curiosity” controls him. It is important to remember that Lanyon is given a clear choice, and it is in his own “greed” that he chooses to watch Lanyon drink the potion. Jekyll is obviously proud of his scientific achievement, and teases Lanyon that he has “denied the virtue of transcendental medicine” and ridiculed his “superiors” (by whom he is referring to himself), and readers know that something amazing and exciting, but at the same time horrific and terrifying, is about to happen once Hyde says “behold! Stevenson’s use of Gothic language to terrify readers as Hyde reacts to the potion is particularly important, as he describes how Hyde “reeled” and “staggered”; he “clutched at the table”; he stared with “infected eyes”, “gasping with open mouth”, and suddenly the figure standing right in front of, and “staring” at Lanyon is no longer Mr Hyde, but Dr Jekyll.
Stevenson continues to use Gothic language to describe Hyde’s metamorphosis to Jekyll which will particularly terrify contemporary readers as Stevenson was writing at a time that people thought anything was possible with science, and many believed that transcendental medicine, such as Jekyll’s own potion, was probable; therefore contemporary readers would think that the events in Jekyll and Hyde were not that unlikely, and could be happening on their street.
Therefore they would have been more terrified at Hyde’s transformation than modern readers, and Stevenson’s Gothic description of the figure’s face “becoming suddenly black” and his features seeming “to melt and alter” as he is now half Jekyll, half Hyde, helps readers to really imagine the metamorphosis as if they were seeing it for themselves. Lanyon’s petrified reaction makes readers even more scared, as he “sprung” to his feet, raised his arm to “shield” himself from the “prodigy”, and his mind “submerged in terror”.
This terrifies readers as they begin to imagine Lanyon’s reaction as their own, and they can see the figure “staggering “about, his features “swelling”, and they suddenly realise the truth of Jekyll’s two personalities. Stevenson describes Lanyon to have “destroyed himself”, and his life has been “shaken to it’s roots”, and this makes readers realise the full extent of what they have just “witnessed”.
Overall, I think that Stevenson has portrayed Hyde to fit in with the typical Gothic mould of the tyrannical male, not only through his use of Gothic language, but through the horrific events themselves; the chilling, secretive, mysterious atmosphere; and the after-thought to contemporary readers that something like this is entirely possible to happen.
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a lot more terrifying to contemporary readers for several reasons. One reason is that at that time of scientific breakthroughs and Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, the world had been turned on it’s head, and people thought that anything was possible with science; they certainly believed in transcendental medicine, which would take human beings from beyond the realms of normal experience.
Also, Stevenson has left clues throughout the novel to allow readers to guess the plot by themselves, which would lead to all sorts of wonders in their imagination; however the story is so well known now that modern readers know the plot, the twist and all events in-between the novel, that it would neither frighten nor surprise them. Also, Stevenson’s use of Gothic description is particularly terrifying as it allows readers to conjure all sorts of horrific images, however the play has been re-enacted in theatre and in film now so many times that there is not much left to imagine for modern readers anyway.