Historical Context in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Science and Industry in the Victorian era: Stevenson’s story portrays London at the height of the Victorian era, when scientific and industrial progress were rising on an exponential curve. However, the story is ambivalent, even pessimistic, about such advances. Mr. Utterson finds much to his distaste as he traverses the cramped, smog-ridden streets of hyper-industrial London. Dr. Lanyon casts a critical eye toward Dr. Jekyll’s rampant scientific experimentation.

Duality of Victorian life: The momentous arrival of modernity in the 19th century introduced a number of dualities to Victorian life. In Stevenson’s story we can see some of these tensions: the ever-growing city versus the natural, rural world; the disparity between an individual’s private and public lives; the dichotomy between civilized and uncivilized modes of conduct; and the clash between empirical, rational perspectives and religious and mystical beliefs.

Historical Context Examples in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde:

Chapter One 2

"Sawbones..."   (Chapter One)

A “sawbones” is a colloquial term for surgeon, derived from the surgical practice of quite literally sawing the bones of amputation patients. The word has origins likely tracing back to 19th-century England. It is an example of a kenning—a compound phrase with a metaphorical meaning.

"Juggernaut...."   (Chapter One)

The word “juggernaut” originates from the Hindu god “Jaggannath.” The temple of Jaggannath stands in Puri, a city in the Indian state of Odisha. Each year, during the festival for Jaggannath, a enormous decorated cart is rolled through the city to the temple, crushing worshippers beneath its wheels along the way. In the 17th century, English travellers began witnessing and reporting back about the ritual. Soon the anglicized word “Juggernaut” came to indicate any wheeled lorry or commuter cart, the likes of which were common in London. As a verb, “juggernaut” refers to the action of crushing people with great force.

"The dismal quarter of Soho seen under these changing glimpses, with its muddy ways, and slatternly passengers, and its lamps..."   (Chapter Four)

Soho is a neighborhood in the West End of London. In Victorian times Soho was known as the city’s center of prostitution. The word “slatternly” comes from “slattern,” a derogatory word for a promiscuous young woman or prostitute. Soho, it becomes clear in the next paragraph, is where Mr. Hyde lives. It is fitting that Hyde, who represents many of the traits despised by the Victorians, resides in the least reputable quarter of London.

"the first fog of the season..."   (Chapter Four)

The London fog is an important feature in a great deal of Victorian literature. As a result of increasingly dense urban living, as well as the rapid industrialization of the 19th century, frequent blankets of smog overtook the city of London. This mixture of fog and coal smoke from factories and homes came to be termed “pea soup” for its thick, dark appearance. Stevenson opts for a chocolate-based metaphor, but the phenomenon is the same. Writers such as Dickens, Doyle, and Eliot have taken turns describing this signature aspect of London life.

"self-destroyer..."   (Chapter Eight)

A “self-destroyer” refers to someone who commits suicide. According to the laws of the Catholic and Anglican churches, suicide was seen a crime against God, and thus was considered taboo in Victorian England.

"to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked, sold a slave to my original evil; and the thought, in that moment, braced and delighted me like wine...."   (Chapter Ten)

Notice both metaphorical instances of description in this line. After having transformed into Hyde, Jekyll finds himself a “slave” to the immoral impulses he has long kept buried, suggesting that the evil personality is stronger than he initially realized. The thought that his vicious impulses now have free reign brings him joy “like wine.” The temperance movement, which advocated restraint and abstinence from drinking alcohol, had gained traction in Victorian England. According to advocates of temperance, overindulgence of alcohol was seen as a character flaw that must be corrected, adding another layer to Jekyll’s description of his transformation.

"committed to a profound duplicity of life...."   (Chapter Ten)

The word choice here is telling: the noun “duplicity” means doubleness or deception, which recalls Hyde and Jekyll’s connection. It also speaks to both the Victorian and moral notion of duality. While Victorians valued restraint in public, they were more emotional in private. Jekyll may be the model Victorian citizen—charitable, respectable, and controlled—but he is capable of just the opposite as well.

"year 18—..."   (Chapter Ten)

One convention of 19th-century literature included using an initial instead of a specific name or location and the first few numbers of year instead of a specific year. Stevenson likely used this convention to enhance the illusion of realism, since it would appear as if he were protecting the privacy of the individuals involved.