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Free Study Guide-Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson-Synopsis
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LITERARY CRITICISM

The Moral Problem of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

The story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde represents a conflict between good and evil. One's character, suggests Stevenson, is determined by their capacity to keep evil impulses in check. In some, this capacity is strong; in others it is weak. In this novel are four men of similar character and social standing, Mr. Utterson, Mr. Enfield, Dr. Lanyon, and Dr. Jekyll, who should be quite capable of subduing their evil impulses. But Dr. Jekyll fails to do so, and the novel is the story of his failure.

Only vigorous personalities are capable of either the heights of virtue or the depths of vice, and Dr. Jekyll is such a personality. In him, both the good and the evil tendencies of human nature are very strong. His descent into extreme evil is due to the fact that he has a very high standard of virtue. He is determined to keep the two sides of his nature completely apart. But in isolating his evil side, he dooms himself.

Stevenson seems to anticipate in his invention the modern psychological theory of the split personality. However, there is a difference. According to psychology, the different personalities of a person so affected act independently and unknowingly of one another. Whereas in the case of Dr. Jekyll, his second personality is a conscious creation brought into being willfully. Hyde is purely evil and seems to contain no part of Jekyll. Yet he acknowledges Jekyll's existence, however grudgingly. Jekyll, meanwhile, recognizes that Hyde is a part of himself, albeit a small, less developed part.


Stevenson suggests that once one gives free rein to their evil tendencies, there is no going back. Indeed, as soon as Dr. Jekyll creates Edward Hyde, he starts on a journey to utter moral downfall. He loses contact first with his good side and then with his friends. The more he plays at being Hyde the more he is cut off from their good influence. Finally becoming Hyde is no longer a matter of choice. The suggestion is that evil may start as a servant, but ultimately it becomes the master and destroys all the good in a person.

Stevenson has added a touch of irony by depicting that the initial effectiveness of the drug is due to an impurity contained in the powder used. The pure powder that is later available is incapable of bringing about the transformation. Perhaps Stevenson wants to suggest that only evil can issue from evil.

Dr. Jekyll's will is weak, and he thus succumbs to the temptation of indulging his evil tendencies. Each time he indulges his evil side, it becomes stronger. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thus powerfully emphasizes the great importance of will in the human character. It also points out that one should resist the first approach of evil. If a person yields an inch, the evil will cover a mile. Yet Stevenson's purpose is ultimately not moralistic, and he conveys this message in an unobtrusive, but convincing manner. His primary goal is to thrill and entertain, and to let the reader find their own lesson. It is no wonder that novel met with such initial success and contributed to Stevenson's rising fame. Stevenson's readers no doubt found it a touching delineation of their own temptations and struggles. And since the conflict between good and evil is an inevitable aspect of human life, the book has, and will continue to have, an abiding interest for readers.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as a "Shocker"

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has sometimes been called a shocker or thriller, and it does, in fact, have all the qualities of one. A child is trampled down by a strange an evil man. This man is in some way involved with a respectable doctor and scientist. A horrific murder takes place, and the man murdered is a prominent citizen. Something dreadful is happening to the doctor, but no one can say what it is. A friend of the doctor discovers a terrible secret and dies of shock soon thereafter. And so on. Stevenson maintains the air of suspense and the atmosphere of horror throughout the novel. Utterson's search for Hyde, Utterson's and Newcomen's visit to Hyde's house, Jekyll's transformation at the window, Poole's urgent visit to Utterson -- all these scenes are full of drama and suspense. Indeed, suspense and horror are the order of the day in the novel.

In this way, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde emerges as a fine shocker or thriller. It is more than that, of course, but there is no doubt that a considerable part of its popularity lies in its ability to be read for the sheer fun of the mystery.

Stevenson's Criticism of Science and Scientists

Dr. Jekyll in Stevenson's novel explores new scientific territory and pushes forward the frontiers of knowledge. As a medical man, his natural target for experiment is the human body and mind. Since he wishes to study the mind in its most private workings, he has to use his own mind. Jekyll is prepared to risk his own life in carrying out his scientific experiment. However, he tampers with something which he does not fully understand, and, in the long run, he pays a heavy price for it.

Jekyll's true crime, however, is to abuse his scientific knowledge in order to enjoy illicit adventures in the darkness of the night. Stevenson's criticism is thus not directed against science, but, rather, it is directed against those scientists who do not know how to control the forces they unleash. Those who pursue science, suggest Stevenson, have an onerous responsibility.

SYMBOLISM / IMAGERY / SYMBOLS / MOTIFS

From the its very beginning, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde abounds in powerful images and symbols. Utterson is introduced to the reader as one who is "[inclined] to Cain's heresy." In the Bible, Cain kills his brother, Abel. When asked by God where Abel is, he angrily replies, "Am I my brother's keeper?" Stevenson uses this story to suggest that Utterson has nothing to do with other people's private affairs. After Utterson learns of Hyde's trampling of the girl, he has a nightmarish dream, in which he sees Hyde as a "juggernaut" gliding stealthily through the streets, crushing a child at every street corner. "Juggernaut" comes from "Jagannath," one of the Hindi titles for the god Vishnu. A juggernaut is an unstoppable force, and Utterson's fear that Hyde is a juggernaut hints at the universal evil force he represents. Stevenson also employs powerful imagery to describe the fog-shrouded streets of London, soon after the murder of Sir Danvers Carew. They are "like a district of some city in a nightmare." Touches like these throughout the novel add to its depth, richness, and complexity.

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