The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is one of the most challenging texts set at GCSE level, but also one of the most rewarding. It explores complex themes of human nature, society and reputation, the interplay of science and religion, secrecy and the newly evolved Gothic genre. It is a novel highly influenced by a specific time and place, meaning that context is more important for this text than almost any other. Understanding the nuances of Victorian society and morality, developments in Psychoanalysis and Robert Louis Stevenson’s own life will all help your analysis and explanations of the text.
Being able to integrate context is an important part of the mark scheme across AQA, Edexcel, OCR and WJEC (to name a few!). It should only be used to back up points in your essay however (i.e. not just “added-in” at random), so thinking about how the background to the book links up with its themes is crucial. Let’s get started…
Who was Robert Louis Stevenson?
Robert Louis Stevenson was born in 1850 in the gothic city of Edinburgh, Scotland. He belonged to a respectable, middle-class family – which included scientists, religious ministers and even a professor of philosophy. The battle between religion/superstition and modern science is one of the key themes of Jekyll and Hyde; one which was heavily influenced by Stevenson’s own upbringing.
Stevenson was a sickly only child, which meant that he spent a lot of time on his own. He developed an interest in reading and writing – and later travelled the world in search of sunnier climates. Although Jekyll and Hyde is set in London, it was inspired by cold, dark, mysterious Edinburgh. This was a city of two parts: polite, respectable, religious New Town; and shady Old Town with brothels, bars and blackmarkets. What links could you make with the dual nature of Jekyll and Hyde?
Religion and Science
Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859. This was a revolutionary book which introduced the scientific theory of evolution (that human beings evolved from apes, and all life from more primitive forms) to the world. Many religious people saw this as a direct attack on Christianity. This is because the story of Genesis in the Bible describes how God created the world (including humans) in just seven days.
The transformation of respectable, well-mannered Dr Jekyll into the “ape-like” “troglodyte” of Mr Hyde is a direct link with this controversial theory. Many Victorians felt that science had developed too quickly, and was meddling in matters that only God should have control over. This is exactly what Dr Jekyll does in the book, with disastrous results.
How does this link to the novel?
Jekyll stops at nothing to achieve his experiment (is scientific curiosity the “hamartia”, or tragic flaw of our protagonist?) – but this ultimately results in his death: “…there lay the body of a man sorely contorted and still twitching.”
Dr Lanyon (one of Jekyll’s oldest friends) views him as ‘dead’ due to what he has done: “I wish to see or hear no more of Dr Jekyll… I am quite done with that person; and I beg you will spare me any allusion to one whom I regard as dead.”
The language Stevenson uses is charged with passion and emotion. In a cruel twist of irony however, Dr Lanyon is the one who’ll be found dead first. He dies of shock because of what he has witnessed (Mr Hyde turning into Dr Jekyll).
Victorian Society and the Industrial Revolution
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which Stevenson described as a “fine bogey tale” came out in 1886. It tapped into many anxieties of the Victorian era. This was an age of technological progress (The Industrial Revolution) and a period in which European nations expanded their empires. By the end of the century though, people questioned the ideals of progress and civilization that had defined the era. A growing sense of pessimism and decline pervaded artistic circles.
How is this shown in the novel?
Jekyll meddles with the natural order, when he brings Mr Hyde into the world: “And now, you who have so long been bound to the most narrow and material views, you who have denied the virtue of transcendental medicine, you who have derided your superiors – behold!”
In this quotation, Dr Jekyll (transformed into Mr Hyde) is talking to Dr Lanyon and is revealing the nature of his experiment to him.
The Duality of Human Nature
There exists good and evil within us all. It’s the choices we make that determine our morality. With the notion of a single body containing both the erudite Dr. Jekyll and the depraved Mr. Hyde, Stevenson’s novel provides an inextricable link between civilization and savagery, good and evil. Jekyll’s attraction to the freedom from restraint that Hyde enjoys mirrors Victorian England’s secret attraction to allegedly savage non-Western cultures, even as Europe claimed superiority over them.
The religious nature of Victorian society also meant that many people suppressed their desires and feelings. This resulted in many people questioning their ‘goodness’ as a human being due to the fact that religion condemned any ‘evil’ thoughts.
Focus on: Sigmund Freud
Jekyll and Hyde was published a few years before Sigmund Freud’s Psychoanalytic theory, but it bears a strong resemblance to his explanation of human behaviour. Freud’s theory described three parts to the unconscious mind:
- The Id is associated with pleasure and aggression – our selfish needs, requiring instant gratification.
- The Superego is our sense of morality – a learned social response.
- The Ego is the link between the two; balancing the base desires of the Id and the morality of the Superego.
How is the duality of mankind shown in the novel?
Dr Jekyll is perceived as a highly influential, kind, educated and popular scientist, possessing: “every mark of capacity and kindness”
Mr Hyde is perceived as a cruel, ugly, vicious man who commits wild acts of violence against innocent people. He is described as having a: “haunting sense of unexpressed deformity”
But are things really that simple? There are many good and bad acts in the book, with characters not purely good and purely evil. Could Stevenson be offering a critique of highly controlled “respectable” Victorian society?
Real Life Case Studies
The play Deacon Brodie (1880) was based on the real life character William Brodie; a man who came from a wealthy, respectable background – but drank, gambled, and used his skills as a locksmith to rob houses and businesses all over Scotland. Brodie was eventually caught and hanged in Edinburgh in 1787. How could you link this with Dr Jekyll’s actions and fate?
Burke and Hare
Linking morality with medical experiments, Stevenson took inspiration from the real-life duo Burke and Hare for his story The Body Snatcher (published in 1884, two years before Jekyll and Hyde). They used to rob graves to supply bodies for Edinburgh’s medical students, and soon progressed to murder. Akin to Jekyll and Hyde – the theme of respectable science hiding criminal behaviour is evident.
Sir Robert Peel
Sir Robert Peel (as home secretary), developed the Metropolitan Police Force for London. In 1829, he declared: “The police are the public and the public are the police.” This new focus on public morality encouraged “detective fiction” which arguably Jekyll and Hyde could be classed as. After all, in true Sherlock Holmes style, it is presented as a “Strange Case” to be solved. Where do we see the police, and themes of crime and punishment in the novel?
The Victorian period witnessed increasing prosperity and power, but also social problems from the industrial revolution, new understandings of the mind and morality, as well as doubts inspired by the new science and debates on crime and punishment. Practice using any of the context above, when explaining specific quotes and elaborating on themes from Stevenson’s gothic novel. Good luck, and happy contextualising…!
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