Where Does Mr Hyde Come From?
Jekyll and Hyde are bywords for dualism, but what prompted Stevenson to create his notorious character?
Alongside Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde are character names from the 19th century which have become key cultural signifiers, even for those who have not read the corresponding novels. Stage and film versions have abounded, which has helped; now many people who have never heard of Mary Shelley know about an ugly creature created from body parts, even if they get the maker and the creature confused; Dracula quickly conjures images of bat-winged cloaks, sharp canines and blood on throats; while Jekyll and Hyde have become bywords for spilt personalities and a duality within humankind, where civility masks a monster.
On the other hand, ‘Henry Jekyll, M.D., D.C.L., L.L.D., F.R.S., etc’ is a different but very recognisable character type. Victorian literature is full of prosperous successful men and the letters after Jekyll’s name identify him as a man of learning and reputation, esteemed by the society in which he and his type enjoyed influence. It is reflected too in Stevenson’s description of the hallway of his house, deemed ‘the pleasantest room in London’, with ‘a bright, open fire, and furnished with costly cabinets of oak.’ His social world develops this further – his guests at dinner are ‘all intelligent, reputable men’. But how does Hyde fit into this? What is Stevenson exploring and suggesting by the creation of Edward Hyde, a ‘down-right detestable’ man?
The author was well aware of the varied impulses of human nature from his own background. His father, an engineer responsible for the building of lighthouses around Scotland, was a man of established reputation and strict religious views, while his mother came from a family of lawyers and churchmen. One of his father’s criticisms of an early book by Stevenson was that ‘there are some three or four irreverent uses of the name of God which offend me and must offend many others’. That strictness of parental background contrasts with Stevenson’s abandoning of engineering as a career, compromising with law, but then turning to writing, spending summers in the more bohemian world of the artists and writers of Paris. This dichotomy of restraint and indulgence was clearly a burden to him; in a letter to a cousin, he wrote of the contrast between the ‘prim obliterated polite face of life, and the broad, bawdy, and orgiastic – or maenadic’. The contrast between the reference to heady Dionysian revelry and the rectitude of the adjective ‘prim’ is striking; here we have the origins of Jekyll and Hyde in a sentence.
Edinburgh and London
That contrast between morality and iniquity could be seen in every city. Stevenson’s strict Calvinist family lived in the spacious streets north of Princes Street in Edinburgh, among the squares and crescents of the Georgian New Town, while to the south, huddled around the castle, were the packed tenements of the Old Town, places of poverty and squalor. It was the same city, but with two distinctive characters; as those characters were geographically separate, the wealthy and the working class seldom had occasion for direct contact. London was similar: a city of vast wealth as the centre of the Empire but also populated by large number of the poor, living in appalling conditions. A quick dip into the novels of Charles Dickens, of course, will illustrate this cheek by jowl relationship of wealth and poverty in London. The two cities were prosperous with a flourishing high society on the one hand, but from another perspective were urban centres of squalid decay, illustrating again the duality of Jekyll and Hyde. This is reflected in Jekyll’s own home, with that ‘pleasantest room in London’ behind the front door, while the back door, in a different street in a ‘dingy neighbourhood’, is ‘blistered and distained’ and the building appears to bear ‘the marks of a prolonged and sordid negligence.’
Interestingly, the cities are linked in another way too. In Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities, the character Jerry Cruncher works in London as a ‘resurrection man’, a neat euphemism for a body-snatcher. He digs up freshly buried corpses from graveyards at night for sale to surgeons. Such things did indeed happen as unscrupulous men of science wanted to expand their anatomical understanding by dubious means. In 1828, William Burke and William Hare went even further than Dickens’ Jerry Cruncher; they actually committed 16 murders in Edinburgh in order to supply the corpses to Robert Knox, a renowned anatomist at the University of Edinburgh, for use in his lectures. While these cases directly recall the plot of Frankenstein (though written a decade before Burke and Hare’s escapades), the surgeons in each story remind us of Jekyll, the famous doctor whose scientific experiments are ‘too fanciful’ for a conventional scientific pedant like Dr Lanyon.
Crime, Criminals and Evolution
Poverty and a lack of opportunity provide a breeding ground for crime, so it was convenient for higher society, buttressed by its wealth and sense of moral superiority, to view the lower classes as particularly susceptible to crime. Jerry Cruncher, Burke and Hare all lived working class lives, while anatomical research often aimed to support this theory by taking measurements from skulls to ‘prove’ that certain people were genetically predisposed to a criminal life. Interestingly, since his hanging for his crimes, Burke’s skull has been stored in Edinburgh Medical School’s Anatomical Museum.
The influential Italian 19th century criminologist Cesare Lombroso advanced the theory that criminality was hard-wired into the genes and was therefore biologically predetermined. Linked to his work on mental illness, he taught that the capacity for crime could be recognised in an individual’s physiognomy – there were, he argued, physical signs of degenerate behaviour. In these ideas we can see the beginnings of fascist eugenics.
Meanwhile, Charles Darwin, developing his evolutionary theories, published The Descent of Man in 1871, just 15 years before Jekyll and Hyde, suggesting that humankind, rather than being directly made in God’s image, is descended from the apes. This raised fundamental questions about the nature of humanity.
These ideas have a clear bearing on Jekyll and Hyde; among the varied animalistic descriptions of Hyde, the phrase ‘ape-like’ occurs three times. By using this term, Stevenson seems to be suggesting that Hyde’s criminality is a throwback to a less evolved human specimen, and therefore perhaps suggesting that crime itself is a sign of degeneracy. Echoing Lombroso too are other elements of Hyde’s description, for example when Enfield struggles to define him:
‘He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point.’
Jekyll too says that ‘evil was written broadly and plainly’ on Hyde’s face.
In other parts of the novella, Hyde ‘snarled’ and has a ‘savage laugh’; he is seen ‘stamping’ and ‘trampling’; he is likened to ‘a rat’ and termed a ‘creature’. The lexis contributes to a view of Hyde as the amoral animal from which moral rational humanity has evolved and perhaps illustrates the Victorian’s fear, not just of criminality, but of what lies beneath the veneer of civilisation.
The Suppression of Pleasure
Of course we know that it is not only the working classes who commit crimes; Dickens certainly knew it, and so does Stevenson. The difficulty with the religious rectitude of Edinburgh or the moral probity of London is that any wrongdoing, however slight, might be seen as the beginnings of the slippery slope towards depravity.
Jekyll is never explicit about what interests and pleasures he considers beyond him as a man who is ‘honourable and distinguished’, but he does indicate that they are insignificant:
Many a man would have even blazoned such irregularities as I was guilty of; but from the high views that I had set before me, I regarded and hid them with an almost morbid sense of shame.
The contrast between ‘irregularities’ and ‘morbid sense of shame’ is striking and illustrates the pressure of Victorian attitudes towards morality and reputation. Even Utterson, that most self-denying of characters, on the drive to Hyde’s apartment in Soho, feels the potential of judgement:
… conscious of some touch of that terror of the law and the law’s officers, which may at times assail the most honest.
However, out of Jekyll’s ‘pleasures’ and ‘irregularities’ come Hyde’s violent crimes, trampling the little girl, then murdering Carew in ‘a storm of blows, under which the bones were audibly shattered’.
As several characters note, Hyde is small of stature, even ‘dwarfish’; as Jekyll theorises in his Full Statement, his ‘evil side’ is ‘less robust and less developed’ than his good. Given licence, though, Hyde develops, gains strength and control and eventually overpowers Jekyll. While Jekyll’s desires might have been slight, opportunity releases much more:
My devil had been long caged, he came out roaring.
Stevenson is asking not just whether human morality and civilisation is a controlling disguise over a more atavistic brutal version of human nature, but whether the excessive pressure of societal expectations of morality and reputation are in fact damaging to the natural, human spirit, whether there is a greater danger in suppressing natural desires so forcefully.