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The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) is about personality and transformation. Dr Jekyll discovers a way to split his own personality between good and evil. However, his alter ego, Hyde, begins to take over Jekyll’s persona and finally, unable to find the antidote, Jekyll ends his life in despair.

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The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

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The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) is about personality and transformation. Dr Jekyll discovers a way to split his own personality between good and evil. However, his alter ego, Hyde, begins to take over Jekyll’s persona and finally, unable to find the antidote, Jekyll ends his life in despair.

Stevenson wrote the book in a matter of weeks after having a dream, and it became a bestseller months after its publication. It has also come to be used as a term for ‘split personality’ in psychoanalysis.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde: Summary

One evening, two friends, Utterson and Enfield, are taking their weekly walk around London when Enfield points out a door in a side street and describes a connected incident he witnessed recently. On returning home early one winter morning, Enfield saw a man trample over a little girl. He raised the alarm, people came running, and Enfield caught Hyde, bringing him back to the scene where the crowd demanded the man should pay £100 to the child’s family. After fixing the amount, Enfield explains that to fetch the money, the man took them to that same house with the door.

When Utterson asks if Enfield learnt the man’s name, Enfield tells him the man was called Hyde. He attempts to describe Hyde, who emanates repulsiveness. On his return home, Utterson pulls out the will of Dr Jekyll and reads over its terms to confirm his suspicion. The will is made out to one Mr Edward Hyde. More disturbing yet, the will says that if Dr Jekyll disappears, the same Edward Hyde should step into Henry Jekylls shoes.

Utterson visits his friend Dr Lanyon, who he believes will be able to throw light on his suspicions concerning Hyde. Lanyon, however, has lost touch with Dr Jekyll since his student days and sees very little of him. Utterson watches out for Hyde and introduces himself. He experiences the same disgust and loathing for Hyde as Enfield.

Two weeks later, Jekyll holds a dinner at his home, and Utterson is invited. After the other guests have left, Utterson raises the subject of the will. Jekyll begs him not to insist on the matter and repeats his request that Hyde receive his rights should anything happen to Jekyll. Reluctantly Utterson promises to look after Hyde’s interests.

About a year later, a terrible murder is committed, that of Sir Danvers Carew, which makes it a high profile case. From witness accounts, it seems that the murderer was Hyde, and a search is set up for him, without success Hyde has vanished. Utterson visits Jekyll, who looks very ill and tells him:

‘Utterson, I swear to God, cried the doctor, I swear to God I will never set eyes on him again.

(Chapter 5, Incident of the Letter)

After Hyde disappears, Jekyll appears to be at peace and to take on a new life. Jekyll holds a dinner with Utterson and Lanyon, and all seems to be well. However, a few days later, Jekyll becomes a recluse, and Utterson cannot visit him. Utterson checks with Lanyon only to find Lanyon with ‘his death-warrant written legibly upon his face’. Lanyon refuses to discuss Jekyll and, a week later, dies, leaving a letter for Utterson. Inside is another envelope:

not to be opened till the death or disappearance of Dr. Henry Jekyll’.

(Chapter 6, Remarkable Incident of Dr Lanyon).

Sometime later, Utterson is out walking with Enfield when they pass by the door to Hyde’s rooms again. Enfield points out they are at the back way to Jekyll’s house, and Utterson suggests popping by to see how Jekyll is. They see Jekyll at a window and exchange greetings. However, Jekyll suddenly withdraws, looking terrified.

One evening, Utterson is at home when he is visited by Jekyll’s butler Poole, who is very worried about his master, who has not been seen for a week or more. Poole suspects foul play. Poole and Utterson go to Jekyll’s home and try to enter his laboratory. They hear a voice that does not sound like Jekyll’s. Poole has caught a glimpse of whoever is inside and says it does not look like Jekyll. Utterson and Poole break down the door to find Hyde dead on the floor in Jekyll’s clothes, an empty phial of poison in his hand.

Utterson finds a note from Jekyll addressed to him, which tells him to read Lanyon’s letter and Jekyll’s own confession. From their narratives, Utterson discovers that Jekyll had learnt how to split his personality into two opposites: the wholly good Jekyll and the wholly terrible Hyde. Initially, he enjoyed the freedom of Hyde, only to repent as Jekyll. However, his alter ego Hyde gradually became stronger, his supply of antidote ran low, and his attempts to replace it failed. Finally, in despair of ever regaining normality, Jekyll took his own life:

‘Here then, as I lay down the pen and proceed to seal up my confession, I bring the life of that unhappy Henry Jekyll to an end.’

(Chapter 10, Henry Jekylls Full Statement of the Case)

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde: Characters

Dr Jekyll: a benevolent, charitable doctor of medicine and a hospitable man.

Hyde: a deeply malevolent and repulsive character people are put off approaching him by the sense of malignancy emanating from him.

Dr Utterson: a lawyer and friend of Dr Jekyll, he has a dry, reserved personality.

Mr Enfield: a distant relative of Utterson and more outgoing.

Dr Lanyon: colleague and old school friend of Jekyll.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde: Influences

Robert Louis Stevenson spent his childhood in Victorian Edinburgh and would have been well aware of the secrets hidden behind the doors of the respectable folk and the double standards of society. He was also aware of the history of William Brodie (1741 - 1788), a well-respected cabinet-maker of the city and deacon of a guild by day, who practised burglary by night to fund his gambling and mistresses.

Stevenson, fascinated by the duality of Brodie’s character, co-wrote a play about him with W. E. Henley in 1880, and it is likely that the story of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was inspired by this.

Duality was a popular theme with several Gothic writers, including Edgar Allan Poe (William Wilson, 1839) and E. T. A. Hoffman (The Story of the Lost Reflection, 1815). Stevenson wrote on Poe’s works and admired the writings of Hoffman. He was heir as well as originator in an age-old culture of the dual personality. The threads to the story were already woven and required only the ‘little people’ of his dreams to weave together the fabric.

Dreams

In Stevenson’s 1888 essay ‘A Chapter on Dreams’, he describes how he had long been thinking about how to write a story on ‘that strong sense of mans double being which must at times come in upon and overwhelm the mind of every thinking creature’.

He had previously written one version, The Travelling Companion, which he had burnt as ‘not a work of genius’. There was, therefore, some seed already growing in his imagination, which was finally set alight once he was driven to write something to make some money:

For two days I went about racking my brains for a plot of any sort; and on the second night I dreamed the scene at the window, and a scene afterward split in two, in which Hyde, pursued for some crime, took the powder and underwent the change in the presence of his pursuers.

(Stevenson, A Chapter on Dreams, 1888)

There was a growing interest in psychology in the later 19th century, and it is possible to apply a psychoanalytical analysis to the story perhaps it was an early examination of split-personality, or perhaps it was a study in repression.

I struck in no more reasonable spirit than that in which a sick child may break a plaything.

(Chapter 10, Henry Jekylls Full Statement of the Case)

Jekyll uses the word ‘child’ twice when referring to Hyde (and thus to himself). Following the psychoanalytical approach, is he referring to a hidden desire to return to the freedom of childhood? There have been many theories, and part of the fascination of Jekyll and Hyde lies in the many questions it raises, which remain unanswered.

Drink or drugs?

Was The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde an allegory of good or evil or of sobriety and addiction? It is possible to see Jekyll (and Hyde’s) taking of the special transforming powders as symbolic of the power of alcohol or drugs over the behaviour and personality of people.

At the time, opium and laudanum could easily be purchased from local chemists. London’s docksides were awash with opium dens tucked in between, behind, and over the taverns, shops, and inns that received constant traffic from merchants and trading ships. Both the wealthy and the struggling succumbed to them, destroying their health and fortunes in the process.

An example of this (that coincidentally also concerns duality) can be seen in Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’ (1891), which opens with Watson helping his wife’s friend extricate her husband from an opium den. In the same building, Watson discovers Sherlock Holmes on a case. A man of wealth has gone missing, presumed kidnapped. A beggar is arrested and held in the cells. Sherlock Holmes manages to identify the beggar as the missing man, who has been living a double life.

Alcohol was as prevalent as opium. After The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde was published, it was quoted in sermons (at St Pauls as well). However, to only regard it as a story of addiction is very limiting and ignores the multiple facets of the story. For many contemporary readers, the fascination lay more in the sensationalist theme of physical transformation.

Duality and Darwinism

Hyde had a song upon his lips as he compounded the draught, and as he drank it, pledged the dead man. The pangs of transformation had not done tearing him, before Henry Jekyll, with streaming tears of gratitude and remorse, had fallen upon his knees and lifted his clasped hands to God.

(Chapter 10, Henry Jekylls Full Statement of the Case)

Theories have varied over time as to the real allegory of Stevenson’s tale, from repression through good versus evil to Darwin’s theory of evolution.

In 1859, Darwin had published his theory of evolution in his Origins of Species, which triggered debate and massively influenced both scientific and literary thought. Even in the sensationalism of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, it is still possible to see allusions to Darwin’s theory in the regressive transformation of tall, well-built Jekyll into small, ‘troglodytic’ Hyde. If humanity could reach the heights of modern man, might it not also regress? Here was a nightmare for Victorians to contemplate as they struggled with their corseted respectability.

Ultimately though, Stevenson was concerned with the hypocrisy of Victorian society. In a letter to John Paul Bocock in 1887, Stevenson explains his own attitudes and intentions:

There is no harm in voluptuaries; and none, with my hand on my heart and in the sight of God, none – no harm whatsoever in what prurient fools call immorality. The harm was in Jekyll, because he was a hypocrite – not because he was fond of women; he says so himself; but people are so filled full of folly and inverted lust, that they think of nothing but sexuality. The Hypocrite let out the beast of Hyde – who is no more sexual than another, but who is the essence of cruelty and malice and selfishness and cowardice, and these are the diabolic in man – not this poor wish to love a woman, that they make such a cry about. I know and I dare say, you know as well as I, that bad and good, even to human eyes, has no more connection with what is called dissipation than it has with flying kites.

(Stevenson, 1887)

He was not alone in thinking this. Wilkie Collinsmystery novels, Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) and later, G. B. Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession (1893) also deal with appearances, double identities, and outward respectability concealing the disreputable.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - Key takeaways

  • The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was published in 1886.
  • It is likely that the story of Jekyll and Hyde was based on the real-life cabinet-maker William Brodie.
  • Stevenson wrote The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde after having a dream.
  • In The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Stevenson was concerned with the hypocrisy of Victorian society.
  • Stevenson admired E. T. A Hoffmann’s writings, which probably influenced him in writing The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is about hypocrisy and duality.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was written in 1886.

Deacon William Brodie, a cabinet-maker who also burgled his clients by night.

‘Jekyll and Hyde’ can be used to refer to split personality.

Stevenson got the idea for the story from a strange dream he had.

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