The Mr. Hyde in Us All
“He put the glass to his lips, and drank at one gulp. A cry followed; he reeled, staggered, clutched at the table and held on, staring with injected eyes, gasping with open mouth; and as I looked there came, I thought, a change—he seemed to swell—his face became suddenly black and the features seemed to melt and alter…
‘O God!’ I screamed, and ‘O God!’ again and again; for there before my eyes—pale and shaken, and half fainting, and groping before him with his hands, like a man restored from death—there stood Henry Jekyll!”
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is an iconic novella from the latter half of the 19th century written by Robert Louis Stevenson. Over the past one hundred years, it has been adapted into numerous screenplays and accumulated immense fame. The story was even an inspiration for one of Marvel Comics’ most famous superheroes: the Hulk. While an entertaining science fiction mystery, it also is very philosophical in terms of its message and the questions it poses, talking about the nature of man.
The novella follows the story of Dr. Henry Jekyll from the perspective of his colleague and lawyer, Mr. Gabriel Utterson. Utterson finds out that Jekyll has been frequenting the company of a peculiar man called Mr. Hyde, who, when he meets him, he finds to be the most despicable character imaginable. Hyde is portrayed as a young, short, grotesque-faced man whose mere aura screams disgust, often being compared to the devil. After Hyde commits murder and a few other crimes and disappears, Utterson discovers the man dead from suicide in Jekyll’s house, only to later learn from a pre-written letter from the man in question that Henry Jekyll himself is actually Mr. Hyde, having been able to transform into this other character through an experimental potion.
Stevenson addresses the idea of our fear of our inhuman behavior, the sides of us that we repress. Jekyll acknowledges in his explanation to Utterson that he grew up always inhibiting his hidden desires and behaviors, and that his potion transforming himself into Mr. Hyde was supposed to be a way of purging these emotions; he would become the rowdy, evil Hyde and indulge in his desires, then transition back into the identity of the dignified Dr. Jekyll with ease. As Jekyll continues his addiction to the potion, constantly transforming back and forth, he discovers that his reliance has affected his normal self, causing him to become Hyde even without drinking the potion. Over the course of the story, he begins to lose control of Hyde; the more he resists and suppresses his other side, the stronger it becomes until it overwhelms him. Hyde had been left ferment over Jekyll’s sixty years of life until he became a tidal wave that was unleashed by Jekyll’s potion. Once Jekyll realized the unspeakable horrors that Hyde was partaking in, he became afraid and tried to end him. But Hyde overwhelmed all of Jekyll’s control and fear.
The setting is also crucial to the plot. The story is set in the end of the 19th century, during the Victorian Era. The society during this period is very reserved and conforming, resulting in strict conduct. Temperance, abstinence, and poised manners were expected of all people, with rigid rules in how to behave in all aspects of daily life. Jekyll’s situation is even more constricting, as he is to maintain the appearance of a respectable doctor. Growing up in this austere society, he conformed all of his straying thoughts of misbehavior until it was released violently by the introduction of Mr. Hyde.
The philosophers of more archaic times, specifically John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, have put forward their thoughts about the nature of man. Hobbes has stated his misanthropic-sounding opinion that man is born evil and must be disciplined in good doctrines to become one of the civilized citizens. Locke, however, possesses a more optimistic viewpoint, believing that man is actually born good. But since we are unable to communicate with newborn babies, how can we actually figure out the truth? But the fact that this discussion exists at all shows that mankind is capable of good and evil, sometimes more of one than the other. Stevenson’s moral in the story seems to allude to that idea, how our normal appearances still have the Mr. Hyde persona, that we have our good and evil sides. The question left is which side we will let define us. Are we Dr. Jekyll, or are we Mr. Hyde?