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Themes in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Good vs. Evil: The story reflects the strict moral attitudes of the Victorian era, which have a dualistic character. According to the Victorians, there is little gray area between good and evil and both have specific purposes. Good behavior contributes to society and furthers its smooth functioning. Evil behavior encompasses anything that fails to serve the needs of society. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde embody these two poles of morality.

Repression of the Self: As the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud suggested, the price of civilization is neurosis, a splitting between the acceptable and unacceptable sides of the psyche, or soul. Those unacceptable portions become repressed, forming what Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung referred to as the psyche’s “shadow.” Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a parable about a man who uncovers the repressed side of his soul and unleashes his shadow. For a Victorian like Henry Jekyll, the shadow includes the wild, greedy, violent aspects of the soul, all of which take shape in Mr. Hyde.

The Dark Side of Progress: Much like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde asks us to consider the price we pay for scientific curiosity. The 19th century was an era of unprecedented scientific and technological progress. Such unchecked progress inevitably carries a dark underside. Stevenson shows us the industrial smog that chokes the London air as well as the unforeseen terrors arising out of Dr. Jekyll’s chemical experimentations. Again and again, we witness the troubling consequences of the modern ideal of progress.

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

Chapter One

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"He was austere with himself; drank gin when he was alone, to mortify a taste for vintages; and though he enjoyed the theater, had not crossed the doors of one for twenty years...."   (Chapter One)

The opening passage of the story introduces us to Mr. Utterson, the protagonist. Mr. Utterson is sensible, rational, discreet, and morally conscientious. In many ways, Utterson serves as an exemplar of Victorian morality. Victorian Britain was a culture which valued a strong work ethic, self-control, sexual restraint, temperance, and codes of strict ethical conduct. In its drive towards upright moral behaviour, Victorian culture developed a shadowy underbelly of child labor, widespread prostitution, and opium dens and gin palaces. The inability to repress and restrain the darker areas of the human soul—a struggle the Victorians knew well—is perhaps the story’s central theme. Our guide through this warped theater of Victorian London is Mr. Utterson, a man who represents the ideals of his age.

" gift (as Utterson supposed) from Henry Jekyll,..."   (Chapter Four)

Because Hyde lives in an unsavory part of town, Utterson assumes that his art must have come from Jekyll, who is much more refined and sophisticated. This speaks to the Victorian emphasis on appearances; because Hyde seems to be poor or criminal, Utterson assumes he cannot also have good taste in art.

"She had an evil face, smoothed by hypocrisy, but her manners were excellent...."   (Chapter Four)

Mr. Hyde’s landlady is characterized by “an evil face, smoothed by hypocrisy.” In Stevenson’s witty phrasing, we get the impression of a woman at once immoral in her actions and yet proficient at lying and concealing those immoral ways. Much of the thematic tension of the story lies in the push and pull between good and evil, as those two moral poles are perceived by the Victorians.

"the procession of the town’s life was still rolling in through the great arteries with a sound as of a mighty wind...."   (Chapter Five)

In this passage, Stevenson summons up lyrical prose to describe the flowing noise of city life, of London’s denizens passing along outside the window in their routine traverses. The metaphor of the city-dwellers as a “mighty wind” places humanity and the natural world in a nearly equivalent relationship, a move that is unsurprising given the immense technological and industrial advances in London during the time. All around are hints of the natural replaced by the human: the fog that is actually man-made smog; the mighty wind of passersby. The word “arteries”—which refers to streets while also suggesting human veins—underscores this theme: the city itself is equated to the human body.

"If I am the chief of sinners, I am the chief of sufferers also. I could not think that this earth contained a place for sufferings and terrors so unmanning;..."   (Chapter Six)

In this letter, Henry Jekyll expresses his desperate struggle with one of the central themes of the story: punishment. The nature of the punishment is psychological, for Jekyll is not punished by the law but rather by his own feelings of remorse and guilt. Jekyll describes a feeling of being “unmann[ed],” a word relevant on multiple levels. To be unmanned is to be stripped of one’s defenses as well as to be reduced of one’s humanity and made less-than-human.

"The scud had banked over the moon, and it was now quite dark...."   (Chapter Eight)

In this image, two of the more important motifs of the story collide. The “scud” here refers to the infamous London coal-smog which, like a cloud, is occluding the moon. The pair of images—pale moon and dark smog—invites a number of pertinent metaphorical dualities: good and evil, clarity and confusion, nature and artifice. As the story hurtles towards its conclusion these opposing tensions move towards resolution.

"I feel that my days are numbered, and that I must die; and yet I shall die incredulous...."   (Chapter Nine)

Whether or not Dr. Lanyon regrets having chosen to witness Jekyll’s transformation, he senses that the event has defeated him, leading him to “feel that my days are numbered.” The whole affair with Jekyll has also defeated his reasoning faculties: as Lanyon says, “I shall die incredulous.” Stevenson uses Lanyon as a representative for a skeptical, rational point of view. Thus Lanyon’s defeat before Jekyll’s great secret strengthens the story’s supernaturalism.

"there stood Henry Jekyll!..."   (Chapter Nine)

At this moment, the duality of Jekyll and Hyde is revealed: Jekyll and Hyde are the same person, two halves of the same whole who are constantly warring with one another. Though readers may have suspected the relationship before, only here—in a violent, grotesque litany of imagery—is their true connection confirmed. The implication of this revelation speaks to the good and evil present in every person: though people are capable of great cruelty, they are also capable of morality and respectability.

"his remarkable combination of great muscular activity and great apparent debility of constitution..."   (Chapter Nine)

The noun “debility” is another word for weakness, and “constitution” refers to a person’s physical health or appearance. Lanyon notes the discrepancy between the man’s constantly shifting facial expressions and how ill he appears—a comments on the man’s dual, and apparently contradictory, nature.

"I became, in my own person, a creature eaten up and emptied by fever, languidly weak both in body and mind, and solely occupied by one thought: the horror of my other self...."   (Chapter Ten)

In this passage, we witness the depths of Jekyll’s pain and terror, as well as the full price he has paid for his actions. By giving life to Hyde, Jekyll’s own existence, both body and soul, have deteriorated and become “eaten up and emptied.” As he approaches his final moments, Jekyll is gripped by horror; having decided to confront his dark, repressed side, that darkness has come to consume him.

"Edward Hyde, alone in the ranks of mankind, was pure evil...."   (Chapter Ten)

Here, the notion that Hyde symbolizes the evil parts of Jekyll is made explicit. Jekyll suggests that all people are dual natured, having both the potential for good and evil within them. To see someone like Hyde, who has no inclination toward good whatsoever, is incredibly distressing.

"managed to compound a drug by which these powers should be dethroned from their supremacy..."   (Chapter Ten)

Here, Jekyll explains the method he used to transform his personality: he created a drug that removed his moral compass and upright character and allowed the “lower” parts of his personality—his traits that were frowned upon—to take control. Though they take a different physical form, these traits are still part of him.

"It was the curse of mankind that these incongruous fagots were thus bound together’that in the agonized womb of consciousness..."   (Chapter Ten)

Now an offensive term, the noun “fagot” refers to both a bundle of sticks used for fuel and a collection of iron rods bound together to be hammered into one. By invoking this metaphor, Jekyll continues to assert that he is two disparate personalities fastened together, constantly struggling for dominance rather than one harmonious person.

"I hazard the guess that man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous, and independent denizens...."   (Chapter Ten)

The noun “polity” refers to an organized government or state. “Multifarious” means many or varied, “incongruous” means lacking in harmony or out of place, and the noun “denizens” refers to inhabitants of a particular place. Jekyll’s worldview is consistent with his character: he believes that humanity is defined by its many parts present in one person, all of whom are different personalities instead of uniform as one. Similarly to the autonomy of Jekyll’s alternate personality, Hyde, he believes that everyone has sides of themselves that are independent rather than under complete rational control.

"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.

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