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Novel Analysis: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Is the Novel a Pretty Clear Case of Split Personality?

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde wears its Christian morality very prominently on its shoulders. Its message is blatant and clear: humankind has two very distinct sides to its personality, one of God-fearing goodness and one of temptation and evil. A true split personality, a schizophrenic, would have two different personalities, with minimal interactions between the two.

Like an angry priest at a lecture, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tells us that the “evil side” is as much a part as the “good side.” And as a result, we must supplicate and constantly beg forgiveness. The one-dimensional Hyde is not a separate personality; he is an enhancement of a side of Jekyll. And Jekyll’s final note testifies to his faith in this interpretation of simple contradictions in personality as Bible-forged absolutes.

“I was driven to reflect deeply and inveterately on that hard law of life, which lies at the root of religion.”

Now certain in his religious convictions, Jekyll informs us that he recognizes the truth of this evilness within himself. The novella is as convinced of its rightness as the doctor is, and thus carries its message like a blustering, hammering tract.

“How I…came forth an angel instead of a fiend…it was neither diabolical nor divine…old Henry Jekyll, that incongruous compound of whose reformations…I had already learned to despair.”

Hyde as the murderer is made clear. He is defined indeed by the author repeatedly as “evil,” the reader again is left in no doubt. However, before the murders start happening, we already know of the absolute nature of Hyde’s characters through the use of an, especially out-of-date plot contrivance. We know Hyde is evil simply because of his appearance. When Jekyll reveals his “evil side,” he literally metamorphizes. The meaninglessness of the statement “looks evil,” which repeatedly returns in the text, does not occur to the nineteenth-century mind, and we are led to believe that, simply because Hyde is a hunchback, he is evil.

“He gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation…the mere radiance of a foul soul that thus transpires through, and transfigures its clay continent.”

Even Jekyll’s own butler is beset with this image-as-evil as if the only worthwhile people are those born without deformity. “That thing was not my master, and there’s the truth…My master is a tall, fine build of a man, and this was more of a dwarf.”

The two mindsets seem to contradict: humankind is judged by God and born with evil in them, and yet evil is also a separate thing, an extra physical cancer. But perhaps that is precisely the point, given the onset of temptation, cancer can grow within us, as Christian morality would have it.

Stevenson, despite the declamatory absolutism of his message, allows an alternative to sneak through. And a libertarian reading of the text is quite possible, partly because of turns of phrase that Stevenson let slip through his tract. In this reading, Hyde is not evil by definition alone and is a much more valuable part of Jekyll’s make-up. The reader is supposed to believe that everything Hyde does is evil, and in a Christian sense, drinking alcohol and going to parties is immoral. However, on a close reading of the descriptions of Hyde, outside of the context of his criminal acts of murder, one finds a person struggling to free himself from the bonds of a forced lifestyle, someone not content to simply be the same as everyone else, someone not content to hold himself back. Hyde hates Jekyll and hates his lifestyle, which is, of course, since they are one and the same, Jekyll hates Jekyll and feels the chafing bonds of the constrained life.

“There was something strange in my sensations, something indescribably new…I felt…happier in body…I…could strip off these lendings and spring headlong into the sea of liberty.”

One can thus re-read the “hard law of life, which lies at the root of religion,” as a plea for help. But this subtle reading is far too much for Stevenson, who rails against the evils of intemperance, while simultaneously rebelling against them, who make Hyde a murderer simply because Christian morals demand that drinking and partying are the same kind of “evil” as killing someone.

The moral reading of the book relates a mix of two contradictory states of mind but nonetheless unites them on a judgemental reading of humanity. It is a complex reading and, although there are two natures, it is not “simply split personality.” In the libertarian reading of the text, the multifaceted nature of human thought is embraced and made into a positive. Real human thought is much more complicated than that. For a moment, Jekyll and Stevenson see this: “It seemed natural and human.”

Work Cited

Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Demetra, 1997.

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