Divided Self Theme in Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"
"Jekyll and Hyde"
The Divided Victorian Sellf
The Victorian era was a time of many changes, advances, and difficulties in England. The Industrial Revolution disrupted society as well as improved lives in many ways. Economic difficulties caused by the influx of people to cities, shift from agricultural to industrial work, and changes in importation brought about by the new railway system resulted in mass poverty and conflict between social classes. In addition to the changes in industry and the economy, the Victorian age was a time of scientific discovery and philosophical views that shook the value system that England had in place for generations. Darwin’s study of evolution led to questioning of religion and faith in a society that was already in the midst of confusion and difficulty. English writers recognized these varied issues and presented the theme of divided self to explore the questioning spirit of the English people during this tumultuous time. One of the most interesting stories of divided self in Victorian times was Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
“The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson
Stevenson’s tale presents a well-respected doctor of the community who conducts a self-destructing experiment upon himself. The story is told mainly from the perspective of Mr. Utterson, who is the lawyer of Dr. Jekyll. Dr. Jekyll makes an odd request in his will: if he is to disappear his entire estate is to pass on to a Mr. Hyde. Utterson finds this very strange and pursues the case. The story follows this mystery to discover who Mr. Hyde is, why Dr. Jekyll would give his estate to someone Utterson does not know, and why Dr. Jekyll believes that he will one day disappear. Utterson learns that Mr. Hyde is quite a scoundrel, “There is something …downright detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked” (Stevenson, 2006, p. 2173). He argues with Jekyll to change his will, but Jekyll refuses. Shortly after this discussion Mr. Hyde murders an innocent man. Dr. Jekyll tells Utterson that he is done with Hyde, and Utterson is relieved. Things seem to go back to normal for a short time. Abruptly, Dr. Jekyll begins to act strangely; he refuses to see his friends and locks himself in his office not even interacting with his staff. His manservant, Poole, worries that Jekyll has disappeared and Hyde is the one hiding in the office. Utterson and Poole break down the door to find Hyde who commits suicide, and Jekyll is nowhere in sight. Through letters Utterson learns the strange occurrences leading to the disappearance of his friend and the suicide of the evil Mr. Hyde.
Through medical experimentation Dr. Jekyll divides his personality into two people. As Dr. Jekyll he remains an upstanding citizen, well-respected, and loved by his friends. As Mr. Hyde Jekyll can live out his dark side; he can behave badly without ruining his good name. Jekyll describes this in the letter explaining his actions “if each, I told myself, could but be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might ho his way…and the just could walk…on his upward path” (Stevenson, 2006, p. 2201). At first he finds this great fun, but eventually Mr. Hyde takes on a life of his own. Jekyll believed he was in control of when he would turn into Hyde by drinking a potion he created. Eventually he would change into Hyde at random times without warning. Jekyll was no longer in control. He locks himself in his offices to avoid Hyde’s discovery and tries to recreate the potion. This is unsuccessful because the ingredients are no longer available. Hyde takes over and commits suicide. Jekyll changed his will so that his estate passes on to Utterson.
Theme: Divided Self
The story offers the theme of divided self in a very literal way. Dr. Jekyll was conflicted by his moral values. He recognized his inner desire for scandalous behavior, but in the rigid community of Victorian England these behaviors would have been unacceptable. To protect his reputation he lived out his dark desires through an alternate identity. This supernatural representation presents interesting interpretations of Victorian society and the grappling with identity of the period. Stevenson uses science as the means for the division in his story. This is certainly important because scientific discoveries were shifting English views of religion, and therefore values as well. Mr. Hyde’s attack and murder of the well-respected man of high social standing offers a parallel to the hostility between social classes of the period, “a crime of singular ferocity and rendered all the more notable by the high position of the victim” (Stevenson, 2006, p. 2179). Hyde was viewed as completely evil. When Jekyll realized that Hyde was up to more than fun, he tried to turn away from the project, but was destroyed. Stevenson uses literal character names to point to the characteristics of the divided self. Hyde represents the hidden self full of dark desires. Jekyll is derived from the French words Je for I and kyll for kill, presenting foreshadowing of Jekyll eventual demise (Gates, 2012).
Victorian Influence on Theme: Divided Self
Instability and Change in the Nation
Despite Queen Victoria’s constancy in the monarchy the nation experienced many changes and difficulties. The rise of the Industrial Revolution decreased the agricultural trade bringing many people into cities to work in factories as well as many to work on the railroad and in mines. Work was difficult and did not pay well. Economic crisis occurred with mass poverty. Prostitution became rampant bringing into question ethical concerns. The vast difference of wealth between the social classes was recognized in the philosophy of Karl Marx. Marx proposed a utopian society where resources were distributed evenly among the masses (Sullivan, 2007). The working class was not adequately represented with voting privileges and extreme poverty and poor working conditions led to hostility among the social classes.
Questions of Morality, Religion, and Values
The Victorian age was also a time of questioning of moral values. Charles Darwin’s scientific study led to his book “Origin of Species” in 1859 (Online Literature Library, n.d.). This book challenged the religious views of creationism presenting scientific proof of man’s evolution from primates. The poor economic conditions also led to prostitution becoming rampant in Victorian England bringing into question ethical concerns. Stevenson acknowledges the issue of prostitution is a small entry “a certain sinister block…tramps slouched into the recess and struck matches on the panels” (Stevenson, 2006, p. 2170). His representation offers the existence of prostitutes in society, yet they were seen as dark and sinister with poor moral values.
Advances in Psychological Study
The divided self as a theme may also have evolved from the advancement of psychological study in the Victorian age. Certainly there always has been self reflection in literature, but Stevenson ties in scientific methods and personality disorder in his story “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” In the eighteenth century the unconscious self was recognized, but the widespread study of psychology evolved in the nineteenth century. The same year Stevenson wrote his tale Frederick Myers wrote an article on what he described “multiplex personality” defined by Myers as dissociation of memory, faculty, and sensibilities could be acted upon resulting in insane chaos and demented oblivion (Gish, 2012, para. 2). Dr. Jekyll presents as mentally disturbed and is so moved by his desire for evil that he creates an alternate version of himself to live out this fantasy.
Motivation for Divided Self
English society during the Victorian age valued respect among their peers. They were a reserved society and reputation was important to these people. These expectations could be oppressive. Duty, respectability, success, and morality were the central values of Victorian society (Appell, n.d.). This high expectation influenced everyday life. Men and women were held to specific ideals that made them acceptable for marriage in society, and respectability was expected to conduct business. Despite the fact that religious laws were less stringent, English society evolved from a culture that was forced to practice religion under penalty of law and these values would still influence the Victorian generation. Those who strayed from acceptable behavior would not be easily accepted in polite society. Because social class determined upward mobility and capability of financial prosperity most people elected to hide dark tendencies and maintain a respectable social appearance.
Despite the necessity of social respectability people would naturally have desires that may not fit into acceptable society. Anger and hostility caused by economic difficulties might trigger hatred for those of higher social class. Acting out on this hatred could cause imprisonment, but it could also cause disrespect of society and limited means of upward mobility in social standing in the future. Gender roles were strongly enforced and straying from these expectations would not be acceptable. Women needed to present a feminine persona. This forced meekness may have angered women in favor of feminist causes, but they may not have acted out on these desires out of fear of ruining their reputation. Men were expected to be masculine, but if they were perceived as weak they were considered inferior. Men may have hidden fears in an effort to be accepted. Victorian society encouraged repression of desires not considered socially acceptable. Stevenson recognized this and presents the issue through the character of Dr. Jekyll “It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognize the thorough and primitive duality of man” (Stevenson, 2006, p. 2200).
Reflection of Society
The theme of divided self represents the division of English society during the Victorian period. The industrial growth created economic crisis for the working class, but it created wealth for many in the upper social classes. This uneven distribution of wealth created hostility among the classes. This division would have been represented by the theme of divided self. Another social issue of the time that separated the nation was the crisis of faith and values. Darwin’s work caused doubt in religion that was debated among the people; many clung to the Christian beliefs of the past and those who believed Darwin’s philosophy lost faith in the church. Added to that was the loose value system of prostitution which was very upsetting to the Puritan movement in England (Landow, 2006). The combination of shift in industry, economic uncertainty, and crisis of faith divided Victorian England, and this is presented in Victorian literature.
Divided self presents in Victorian stories and poetry in many ways. Both men and women faced the issues that faced the nation as well as difficulties that were gender specific. Men were expected to be masculine; this included the masculine responsibilities of marriage, provider, protector, morality, and respectability (Appell, 2012). Men who exhibited feminine traits or homosexual tendencies were unacceptable in Victorian society. These expectations could be oppressive to men causing them to resent their position in the family and society. Women were expected to be meek, virtuous, innocent, weak, ignorant, beautiful, and subservient to men. Women were to marry, raise children, and participate in domestic chores of the home, unless the family was wealthy and then she would oversee the domestic help in the house (Appell, 2012). Many women did not appreciate the role of male’s inferior causing division of self. Women and men needed to present a specific representation to society and had to repress or hide facets of themselves or their personalities that did not fit into the social expectations of Victorian life.
Horror versus Comedy
Robert Louis Stevenson’s representation of the divided self through horror speaks for the age. In the past the divided self was presented more subtly, as in William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” comedy. Shakespeare uses the character of Viola to show the division of self caused by gender roles and expectations of society as Viola disguises herself as a man through the comedy. Stevenson’s story graphically presents the division of self through the protagonist creating another version of himself to live out his dark fantasies in secret. Jekyll’s friend Dr. Lanyon could not even accept Jekyll’s behavior recounting the horrors of his behavior “the moral turpitude that man unveiled to me, even with tears of penitence, I cannot, even in memory, dwell on it without a start of horror” (Stevenson, 2006, p. 2200). The use of such graphic and horrific details in “Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” Stevenson goes beyond the romance of the past to show the horrors of everyday life in Victorian England. Shakespeare’s time was marked by wars and economic difficulty in the feudal system, but his work offers an innocence of wooing at court. Stevenson’s modern presentation of the theme reflects the changed society.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” provides readers with a view into Victorian England during a time of great social turmoil. Jekyll’s personal battle with his inner demons creates a literal division of self that would have been empathized by society of the period. There were many contributing factors to this division of society and personality. The rise of the Industrial age provided both economic wealth and poverty. The battle between the social classes led Karl Marx to question how society lives and the distribution of wealth in a utopian society. Darwin’s work on evolution brought religious beliefs into question creating a crisis of faith among many. Also the expectations of society to live respectably within gender limits caused oppression to many people. The resolution came about as many decided to abandon social expectations and live life as they choose, both with good and bad traits. The oppressed women started the feminist movement to fight to be seen as equals with men. The working class fought for voting rights and representation in government among the upper social class. People made their own choices in regard to values and religion and agreed to disagree with those who did not share their beliefs. Science and philosophy continued, and the Industrial age progressed. This does not mean that people do not have hidden desires, or that everyone is happy and content. The theme of divided self will continue to be relevant as long as humans have emotions and conscience to repress desires not found socially acceptable.
Appell, F. (2012). Victorian ideals: The influence of society’s ideals on Victorian relationships. McKendree University Journal of Undergraduate Reseach. Issue 18. Retrieved from http://www.mckendree.edu/academics/scholars/issue18/appell.htm
Gates, B.T. (2012 September 7). Robert Louis Stevenson’s the strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Retrieved from http://www.victorianweb.org/books/suicide/06e.html
Gish, N. (2012). Jekyll and Hyde: The psychology of dissociation. Retrieved from http://www.ijsl.stir.ac.uk/issue2/gish.htm
Landow, G.P. (2006 June 5). Early and mid-Victorian attitudes towards prostitution. Retrieved from http://www.victorianweb.org/gender/prostitution2.html
Online Literature Library. The origin of species. Retrieved from http://www.literature.org/authors/darwin-charles/the-origin-of-species/
Sullivan, R. (2007). Karl Marx. Retrieved from http://www.victorianweb.org/philosophy/phil2.html
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