Robert Louis Stevenson wrote The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in October 1885 when he was thirty-five and living with his wife Fanny and her son from a previous marriage, Lloyd Osborne. Embarrassed that he was still living off of his father’s financial support, Stevenson purposely wrote the tale in hopes of success on the commercial market. To this end, Stevenson’s editor urged him to write a “shilling shocker” for Christmas 1885 in order to respond to the popular desire for ghost stories around Christmastime. Unfortunately, the Christmas 1885 book market was full, so The Strange Case was instead released in January 1886. It was his first really successful work and finally allowed Stevenson to become financially independent.
“Gabriel John Utterson and his cousin Richard Enfield reach the door of a large house on their weekly walk. Enfield tells Utterson that months ago he saw a sinister-looking man named Edward Hyde trample a young girl after accidentally bumping into her. Enfield forced Hyde to pay £100 to avoid a scandal. Hyde brought them to this door and provided a cheque signed by a reputable gentleman (later revealed to be Doctor Henry Jekyll, a friend and client of Utterson). Utterson is disturbed because Jekyll recently changed his will to make Hyde the sole beneficiary. Utterson fears that Hyde is blackmailing Jekyll. When Utterson tries to discuss Hyde with Jekyll, Jekyll turns pale and asks that Hyde be left alone.
One night in October, a servant sees Hyde beat to death Sir Danvers Carew, another of Utterson’s clients. The police contact Utterson, who leads officers to Hyde’s apartment. Hyde has vanished, but they find half of a broken cane. Utterson recognizes the cane as one he had given to Jekyll. Utterson visits Jekyll, who shows Utterson a note, allegedly written to Jekyll by Hyde, apologising for the trouble that he has caused. However, Hyde’s handwriting is similar to Jekyll’s own, leading Utterson to conclude that Jekyll forged the note to protect Hyde.
For two months, Jekyll reverts to his former sociable manner, but in early January, he starts refusing visitors. Dr Hastie Lanyon, a mutual acquaintance of Jekyll and Utterson, dies of shock after receiving information relating to Jekyll. Before his death, Lanyon gives Utterson a letter to be opened after Jekyll’s death or disappearance. In late February, during another walk with Enfield, Utterson starts a conversation with Jekyll at a window of his laboratory. Jekyll suddenly slams the window and disappears.
In early March, Jekyll’s butler, Mr. Poole, visits Utterson and says Jekyll has secluded himself in his laboratory for weeks. Utterson and Poole break into the laboratory, where they find Hyde wearing Jekyll’s clothes and apparently dead from suicide. They find a letter from Jekyll to Utterson. Utterson reads Lanyon’s letter, then Jekyll’s. Lanyon’s letter reveals his deterioration resulted from the shock of seeing Hyde drink a serum that turned him into Jekyll. Jekyll’s letter explains that he had indulged in unstated vices and feared discovery. He found a way to transform himself and thereby indulge his vices without fear of detection. Jekyll’s transformed personality, Hyde, was evil, self-indulgent, and uncaring to anyone but himself. Initially, Jekyll controlled the transformations with the serum, but one night in August, he became Hyde involuntarily in his sleep.
Jekyll resolved to cease becoming Hyde. One night, he had a moment of weakness and drank the serum. Hyde, furious at having been caged for so long, killed Carew. Horrified, Jekyll tried more adamantly to stop the transformations. Then, in early January, he transformed involuntarily while awake. Far from his laboratory and hunted by the police as a murderer, Hyde needed help to avoid capture. He wrote to Lanyon (in Jekyll’s hand), asking his friend to bring chemicals from his laboratory. In Lanyon’s presence, Hyde mixed the chemicals, drank the serum, and transformed into Jekyll. The shock of the sight instigated Lanyon’s deterioration and death. Meanwhile, Jekyll’s involuntary transformations increased in frequency and required ever larger doses of serum to reverse. It was one of these transformations that caused Jekyll to slam his window shut on Enfield and Utterson.
Eventually, one of the chemicals used in the serum ran low, and subsequent batches prepared from new stocks failed to work. Jekyll speculated that one of the original ingredients must have some unknown impurity that made it work. Realizing that he would stay transformed as Hyde, Jekyll decided to write his “confession”. He ended the letter by writing, “I bring the life of that unhappy Henry Jekyll to an end.”” 1
Notes & Quotes
- In writing The Strange Case… Stevenson uses familiar Gothic elements in new ways. First, since this was originally meant to be a “Christmas crawler,” the story opens with Mr. Utterson hearing the story of the mysterious man who trampled a small child from his cousin, Enfield. This is a new version of the more traditional Christmas Crawler opening, in which a haunting story is related in hushed tones around the fireside. Although the story doesn’t involve an actual ghost (and may even be within the realm of science fiction), the theme of haunting is vitally important. Dr. Jekyll is haunted by his sinful pleasures, as well as by the contemporary need to keep up appearances. Similarly, Jekyll’s social circle seem to have their own secrets that haunt them and must work to keep the secrets repressed. Unfortunately for Jekyll, through Hyde, his secret nocturnal life is no longer repressed, but manages to take over his life, body, and mind. Finally, Hyde is described in highly atavistic terms (“ape-like” (22) and hairy), allowing for a sort of past return. Gothic tales typically feature a family or ancestral curse returned to wreak havoc on the present. In The Strange Case, the simian ape-like ancestor returns and drags Dr. Jekyll backwards on the evolutionary scale, both morally and physically.
- Throughout the tale, Stevenson works to create a decidedly urban gothic vision of London, turning it into a nightmarish landscape that is difficult to navigate. Additionally, his description of Jekyll’s home (with its respectable front and Hyde’s back-door work to materialize Jekyll’s disordered and sinful mind). Finally, Jekyll’s transformation into Hyde not only works on his mind and soul (turning him into “pure evil”) but it also changes his physical exterior as a result of the degradation of his interior. I’m really fascinated with the gothic flow between the interior and exterior of things throughout the tale.
But tonight there was a shudder in his (Utterson’s) blood; the face of Hyde sat heavy on his memory; he felt (what was rare with him) a nausea and distaste of life; and in the gloom of his spirits, he seemed to read a menace in the flickering of the firelight on the polished cabinets and the uneasy starting of the shadow on the roof. He was ashamed of his relief, when Poole presently returned to announce that Dr. Jekyll was gone out. (17)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. (23)Enough, then, that I not only recognized my natural body for the mere aura and effulgence of certain of the powers that made up my spirit, but managed to compound a drug by which these powers should be dethroned from their supremacy, and a second form and countenance substituted, none the less natural to me because they were the expression, and bore the stamp of lower elements in my soul. (57)
- Much like Wilkie Collins, the threat or danger is placed in contemporary England amongst respectable people. In the story of Dr. Jekyll, the reader quickly learns that most of Jekyll’s respectable circle of professional men of good taste all appear to have secrets of their own. Is this Stevenson playing with the reader? After all, the greatest monster of The Strange Case might be public opinion, which claims the death of Dr. Jekyll.
- I’m also interested in the language of invasion with which Jekyll struggles against as he views his two separate personas. As much as Jekyll would like to believe that Hyde is a completely separate entity from Jekyll, both personalities seem to bleed into each other. The two cannot remain separate and this is shown in the final chapter, when Jekyll moves between second and first person when discussing both Jekyll and Hyde.
- Finally, the maidservant who witnesses Hyde’s murder of Sir Danvers Carew is described as “romantically given,” meaning that she enjoys reading romances (21). This perhaps was done to cast readers’ suspicions on her testimony of the events, which may be peppered with theatrical and sensational language because of her fictional preferences. This also brings into question the distinction between fiction and reality, causing the other testimonies (those of Lanyon and Jekyll) to also be called into question.