Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Duality of Human Nature
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde centers upon a conception of humanity as dual in nature, although the theme does not emerge fully until the last chapter, when the complete story of the Jekyll-Hyde relationship is revealed. Therefore, we confront the theory of a dual human nature explicitly only after having witnessed all of the events of the novel, including Hyde’s crimes and his ultimate eclipsing of Jekyll. The text not only posits the duality of human nature as its central theme but forces us to ponder the properties of this duality and to consider each of the novel’s episodes as we weigh various theories.
Jekyll asserts that “man is not truly one, but truly two,” and he imagines the human soul as the battleground for an “angel” and a “fiend,” each struggling for mastery. But his potion, which he hoped would separate and purify each element, succeeds only in bringing the dark side into being—Hyde emerges, but he has no angelic counterpart. Once unleashed, Hyde slowly takes over, until Jekyll ceases to exist. If man is half angel and half fiend, one wonders what happens to the “angel” at the end of the novel.
Perhaps the angel gives way permanently to Jekyll’s devil. Or perhaps Jekyll is simply mistaken: man is not “truly two” but is first and foremost the primitive creature embodied in Hyde, brought under tentative control by civilization, law, and conscience. According to this theory, the potion simply strips away the civilized veneer, exposing man’s essential nature. Certainly, the novel goes out of its way to paint Hyde as animalistic—he is hairy and ugly; he conducts himself according to instinct rather than reason; Utterson describes him as a “troglodyte,” or primitive creature.
Yet if Hyde were just an animal, we would not expect him to take such delight in crime. Indeed, he seems to commit violent acts against innocents for no reason except the joy of it—something that no animal would do. He appears deliberately and happily immoral rather than amoral; he knows the moral law and basks in his breach of it. For an animalistic creature, furthermore, Hyde seems oddly at home in the urban landscape. All of these observations imply that perhaps civilization, too, has its dark side.
Ultimately, while Stevenson clearly asserts human nature as possessing two aspects, he leaves open the question of what these aspects constitute. Perhaps they consist of evil and virtue; perhaps they represent one’s inner animal and the veneer that civilization has imposed. Stevenson enhances the richness of the novel by leaving us to look within ourselves to find the answers.
The Importance of Reputation
For the characters in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, preserving one’s reputation emerges as all important. The prevalence of this value system is evident in the way that upright men such as Utterson and Enfield avoid gossip at all costs; they see gossip as a great destroyer of reputation. Similarly, when Utterson suspects Jekyll first of being blackmailed and then of sheltering Hyde from the police, he does not make his suspicions known; part of being Jekyll’s good friend is a willingness to keep his secrets and not ruin his respectability. The importance of reputation in the novel also reflects the importance of appearances, facades, and surfaces, which often hide a sordid underside. In many instances in the novel, Utterson, true to his Victorian society, adamantly wishes not only to preserve Jekyll’s reputation but also to preserve the appearance of order and decorum, even as he senses a vile truth lurking underneath.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Violence Against Innocents
The text repeatedly depicts Hyde as a creature of great evil and countless vices. Although the reader learns the details of only two of Hyde’s crimes, the nature of both underlines his depravity. Both involve violence directed against innocents in particular. In the first instance, the victim of Hyde’s violence is a small, female child whom he tramples; in the second instance, it is a gentle and much-beloved old man. The fact that Hyde injures a girl and ruthlessly murders a man, neither of which has done anything to provoke his rage or to deserve death, emphasizes the extreme immorality of Jekyll’s dark side unleashed. Hyde’s brand of evil constitutes not just a lapse from good but an outright attack on it.
Repeatedly in the novel, characters fail or refuse to articulate themselves. Either they seem unable to describe a horrifying perception, such as the physical characteristics of Hyde, or they deliberately abort or avoid certain conversations. Enfield and Utterson cut off their discussion of Hyde in the first chapter out of a distaste for gossip; Utterson refuses to share his suspicions about Jekyll throughout his investigation of his client’s predicament. Moreover, neither Jekyll in his final confession nor the third-person narrator in the rest of the novel ever provides any details of Hyde’s sordid behavior and secret vices. It is unclear whether these narrative silences owe to a failure of language or a refusal to use it.
Ultimately, the two kinds of silence in the novel indicate two different notions about the interaction of the rational and the irrational. The characters’ refusals to discuss the sordid indicate an attribute of the Victorian society in which they live. This society prizes decorum and reputation above all and prefers to repress or even deny the truth if that truth threatens to upset the conventionally ordered worldview. Faced with the irrational, Victorian society and its inhabitants prefer not to acknowledge its presence and not to grant it the legitimacy of a name. Involuntary silences, on the other hand, imply something about language itself. Language is by nature rational and logical, a method by which we map and delineate our world. Perhaps when confronted with the irrational and the mystical, language itself simply breaks down. Perhaps something about verbal expression stands at odds with the supernatural. Interestingly, certain parts of the novel suggest that, in the clash between language and the uncanny, the uncanny need not always win. One can interpret Stevenson’s reticence on the topic of Jekyll’s and Hyde’s crimes as a conscious choice not to defuse their chilling aura with descriptions that might only dull them.
Throughout the novel, Stevenson goes out of his way to establish a link between the urban landscape of Victorian London and the dark events surrounding Hyde. He achieves his desired effect through the use of nightmarish imagery, in which dark streets twist and coil, or lie draped in fog, forming a sinister landscape befitting the crimes that take place there. Chilling visions of the city appear in Utterson’s nightmares as well, and the text notes that
He would be aware of the great field of lamps of a nocturnal city. . . . The figure [of Hyde] . . . haunted the lawyer all night; and if at any time he dozed over, it was but to see it glide more stealthily through sleeping houses, or move the more swiftly . . . through wider labyrinths of lamp-lighted city, and at every street corner crush a child and leave her screaming.
In such images, Stevenson paints Hyde as an urban creature, utterly at home in the darkness of London—where countless crimes take place, the novel suggests, without anyone knowing.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Jekyll’s House and Laboratory
Dr. Jekyll lives in a well-appointed home, characterized by Stevenson as having “a great air of wealth and comfort.” His laboratory is described as “a certain sinister block of building … [which] bore in every feature the marks of profound and sordid negligence.” With its decaying facade and air of neglect, the laboratory quite neatly symbolizes the corrupt and perverse Hyde. Correspondingly, the respectable, prosperous-looking main house symbolizes the respectable, upright Jekyll. Moreover, the connection between the buildings similarly corresponds to the connection between the personas they represent. The buildings are adjoined but look out on two different streets. Because of the convoluted layout of the streets in the area, the casual observer cannot detect that the structures are two parts of a whole, just as he or she would be unable to detect the relationship between Jekyll and Hyde.
Hyde’s Physical Appearance
According to the indefinite remarks made by his overwhelmed observers, Hyde appears repulsively ugly and deformed, small, shrunken, and hairy. His physical ugliness and deformity symbolizes his moral hideousness and warped ethics. Indeed, for the audience of Stevenson’s time, the connection between such ugliness and Hyde’s wickedness might have been seen as more than symbolic. Many people believed in the science of physiognomy, which held that one could identify a criminal by physical appearance. Additionally, Hyde’s small stature may represent the fact that, as Jekyll’s dark side, he has been repressed for years, prevented from growing and flourishing. His hairiness may indicate that he is not so much an evil side of Jekyll as the embodiment of Jekyll’s instincts, the animalistic core beneath Jekyll’s polished exterior.
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